Italian-American cuisine was born more than a century ago, as immigrants from southern Italy—mainly Apulia, Sicily, and Campania—began arriving in New York City in droves and quickly took stock of what ingredients were available for cooking purposes. Nowhere to be seen was the plethora of cured-pork products like pancetta and prosciutto that many had been accustomed to flavoring their sauces with. Instead, mountains of cheap ground beef beckoned in German butcher shops. How could it be incorporated into the southern Italian canon? And so the meatball was born, a symbol of culinary creativity and adaptation in the New World.
Arriving via Naples, sojourners also brought pizza with them. But how they transformed it! Instead of the meager pita with a blob of cheese it once was, suddenly the girth began to skyrocket, and the pies became heaped with an opulence of ingredients appropriate to the new circumstance in which the immigrants found themselves. When French bread was popularized in the ’20s, they adapted the demi-baguette to create the Italian hero, and civilization has never been the same. But pasta remained their favorite food, available in myriad shapes in dried form from the old country and ready to be richly sauced with tomatoes, garlic, and cheese.
Nowadays, the heavy-on-the-red version of southern Italian cuisine that New York is famous for is on the skids, as lighter and more “natural” central Italian cooking styles—sometimes known as “Tuscan”—have become standard in most Italian restaurants. That sort of bare-bones plate presentation—say, a single vegetable with a sprig of fresh rosemary—might be perfect for the city’s summer months, but don’t you crave something heavier and lustier once autumn rolls around? Following are some of the best places in town to cop authentic and venerable examples of Italian-American cooking.
Stepping inside the house under the BQE in Williamsburg where Bamonte’s (32 Withers Street, Brooklyn, 718-384-8831) sits is like returning to 1900, when the place was founded on the crest of a wave of immigrants from Nola, Italy, just west of Naples. You can still spot beehive hairdos in the timeworn bar as you pass through on the way to the dining room. Most of the patrons don’t live in the neighborhood anymore, but trek here from Jersey and Long Island. In the dining chamber, find waiters clad like penguins in tuxedos, lots of heavy napery, busts of Roman gods, and a brilliantly lit open kitchen at the far end, reportedly the first in the country. It was supposedly created so mobsters could make sure nobody was fuggin’ with their food.
The wine list has evolved over the years to include great bottles at reasonable prices, but the food remains staunchly old school and often terrific. Look for the standards: baked clams oreganata, tasting of the ocean and heaped with herbed bread crumbs; eggplant rollatini oozing ricotta cheese; thick pork chops decorated with vinegary hot peppers; and—a dish that certainly originated in New York but has become popular worldwide—spaghetti and meatballs. You get two ground-meat globes, whose blandness contrasts nicely with the zestiness of the house tomato sauce, which must be tapped from giant vats on the roof. For dessert, consider the freshly filled cannoli.
A meatball’s throw away, but much less well known, is Frost Restaurant (193 Frost Street, Brooklyn, 718-389-3347), a bunker of a place in the middle of a Williamsburg neighborhood where many of the immigrants came from Teggiano, a hardscrabble town in the southern reaches of Campania. The baked pastas are scrumptious, including manicotti (remember Mrs. Manicotti, the upstairs neighbor on The Honeymooners?), lasagna, ravioli, and ziti Sicilian style, which includes tender little chunks of eggplant and enough mozzarella to fill a bathtub. In a similar island vein (but probably really from Calabria) is half-chicken Siciliana, which is spicier than you thought Italian food could ever be.
The East Village has its own retro-red-sauced holdout in the form of John’s of 12th Street (302 East 12th Street, 212-475-9531), a darkened den of daters with a humongous guttering white candle dominating the back room. Ignore the newfangled vegan menu and go, once again, for the eggplant rollatini: two large ricotta-filled humps side by side with an entire plate of spaghetti—the entrée could feed two. Need some veggies? The sautéed broccoli rabe has enough garlic to give you stinky breath for a week. Prosciutto and melon is another good bet here, proving that cured-ham products finally did arrive in this formerly Italian East Village neighborhood.
For more Sicilian action, traipse up to Umbertos Clam House (2356 Arthur Avenue, Bronx, 718-220-2526) in the Bronx’s Little Italy, more often known as Belmont or Arthur Avenue, after its main thoroughfare. This restaurant specializes in seafood—mainly shrimp, squid, conch, clams, and other crustaceans. Sometimes, these creatures are accompanied by, not pasta or bread, but hard biscuits, which might cause you to scratch your head and wonder why. (It was probably a dining habit learned from the island’s seafarers.) There are also seafood stews and soups galore, a nice lobster ravioli, and especially good meatballs in a charming nautical setting with outdoor seating.
Just across the Hudson River, you could hit up Casa Dante (737 Newark Avenue, Jersey City, New Jersey, 201-795-2750), which boasts its own parking lot. Hard to believe, but this place was written up in a 1980s issue of Gourmet as a place that editors of that magazine went when they wanted to hide out. Featured in The Sopranos, the two-story garishly painted green facade of Rita and Joe’s (142 Broadway, Jersey City, New Jersey, 201-451-3606) has been visible to drivers along Alternate Truck Route 9 for decades. The restaurant is a little cheaper than Casa Dante. Don’t miss spiedini alla Romana—a sort of Italian toasted-cheese sandwich—or the fried calamari, which might be some of the finest in the metropolitan area. The breadth of the beer list comes as something of a surprise.
But the mother of all Italian-American joints in the area is L & B Spumoni Gardens (2725 86th Street, Brooklyn, 718-449-6921). This theme park of a restaurant in Gravesend is the scene of a perpetual traffic jam come weekend evenings, and you can choose from a series of three conjoined eateries: a pizzeria that specializes in “sheets,” the Brooklyn name for Sicilian-style square pies; an Italian-ice dispensary famous for its (duh!) spumoni; and a sit-down restaurant where you can find all of the dishes mentioned above and more. Sit outside in the expansive picnic-tabled front yard as the leaves fall and marvel how this wonderful spot still exists.