When we crunched the numbers on our 99 Essential Restaurants® in Brooklyn, we noted that Italian food could very well be Brooklyn’s official fare — there are twenty-three Italian restaurants on the list, nine of which are pizzerias. We’ve since provided you with that list of pizzerias, and here, we’re listing the fourteen essential Italian restaurants that don’t specialize in pie. Many of these are over 50 years old. Others showcase the New Italian that’s infiltrated Brooklyn in the last few years. Each is an essential part of the borough’s culinary makeup.
al di la Trattoria, 248 Fifth Avenue, 718-783-4565
As Americanized as Italian food has become over the past hundred years, we tend to fixate on our own versions of Southern Italian favorites: pasta, red sauce, even redder wine, and probably something like…garlic bread? But al di la Trattoria, the sixteen-year-old stalwart of Park Slope’s Fifth Avenue, challenges diners to look beyond the standard notion of what constitutes Italian by focusing exclusively on the motherland’s northern regions. When it opened in 1998, it was even more specific than that: “We were originally focusing primarily on Venetian,” says chef Anna Klinger, who owns the restaurant with her husband, Emiliano Coppa. “But we’ve veered off slightly.” The menu features a number of often-overlooked Northern Italian staples — tripe stew, polenta and cuttlefish (with a rich and briny squid ink), calf’s liver, and braised rabbit. The pastas are predictably solid (beet and ricotta ravioli is a standout), and the wine list welcomingly hovers in the $40-per-bottle range. Park Slope has changed immensely since this cozy space opened, but Klinger and Coppa steadfastly maintain their vision of a neighborhood restaurant. “We’re not doing anything groundbreaking,” says the chef. “We’re just trying to keep it honest.”
Bamonte’s, 32 Withers Street, 718-384-8831
Old-school red-sauce joints are a crucial part of Brooklyn’s history and identity, even if most of those once-prevalent mobster hideouts have gone the way of, well, mob crime in New York City. But Bamonte’s remains, and it offers a glimpse into this storied past. Opened by Italian immigrant Pasquale Bamonte on a residential street in Williamsburg, Bamonte’s has been serving Italian classics since 1900. These days Pasquale’s grandson Anthony runs the joint. He hasn’t changed much: The décor — a long, wooden bar; carpeted floors; phone booths — feels like it dates to 1955. Bartenders and servers, all of whom seem to be named Henry or Anthony, wear tuxes, and they’re on a first-name basis with many of the Italian families who fill the large tables. These families are decades-long regulars, even if some of them have moved out to Long Island and have to drive in for a meal. The food isn’t groundbreaking, but it is comforting (much of it is pasta, after all), and even new neighborhood transplants with carefully honed palates will likely enjoy dishes like stuffed artichokes and the “Pork Chop Bamonte,” which is made with vinegar and hot peppers. As one regular said, “You don’t go for the food. You go for Bamonte’s.” Make sure to enjoy a postprandial espresso-and-sambuca — it’s the original Brooklyn combo.
Brucie, 234 Court Street, 347-987-4961
On a cold winter night, the front windows at Brucie steam with the warm energy that radiates within. Diners gather around the communal table, elbow up to the bar, or cram themselves into two- and four-tops along the wall. They talk loudly, not worrying about whether their neighbors are listening (they aren’t); order too much food and wine; and stay longer than they’d intended. The place takes on the rhythm and good will of a dinner party, which is just what chef-owner Zahra Tangorra wanted when she opened back in 2010. This part of Brooklyn is heavy on Italian restaurants, many of which are beloved old mainstays, but despite having no professional training, Tangorra put together a menu that’s traditional enough to lure people in for comforting dishes and improvised enough to set her apart from the competition. The menu changes seasonally, but you’ll often find some form of arancini on the list, and you can always find spaghetti and meatballs, the half-chicken, and big hunks of meat for two. You might also find squid-ink tagliatelle with chickpeas and raisins, or osso buco, or a pasta inspired by a turkey reuben. Hit the Italian wine list for a pairing; many of the selections are biodynamic or organic. Like any good neighborhood restaurant, Brucie is just as popular at brunch, when it trots out scrambled eggs and french toast in lieu of all those noodles. In 2010 Tangorra did Cobble Hill another solid with an unusual offering: Drop off a pan, and she’ll fill it with lasagna by the next day. Take it home and bake it, and you have the basis for your very own dinner party. Then again, why have people over when you could just come here?
Defonte’s Sandwich Shop, 379 Columbia Street, 718-625-8052
A first trip to Defonte’s Sandwich Shop can feel slightly intimidating — here are counter workers with thick Brooklyn accents, working briskly and managing the crowd by slapping an order on the counter and then asking, loudly, if they can help the next person. It’s up to you to determine whether you’re next; your fellow patrons don’t exactly form an orderly line. And most of them seem to have known exactly what they want before they walked through the door: a carton of meatballs for this woman; a hot roast-beef sandwich with fried eggplant for that man. This saves them from reading the menu plus the handwritten items on bits of paper taped around the joint. Many people, you’ll soon notice, are ordering the potato and egg, which piles skilleted bits of both ingredients plus mozzarella between two halves of a hero. You can spot newcomers because they order their sandwiches large — a mistake unless you plan to feed a family or want something to take home. Most neighborhood regulars take their meals to go, but some stand at the counters, taking in old photos of celebrities while mopping their faces with piles of thin napkins. It’s not hard to imagine dockworkers doing something similar decades ago. Defonte’s is a multi-generation family operation. Nick Defonte, an Italian immigrant, paid $100 to buy the business in 1922. Back then it was a longshoreman hangout in Red Hook, a corner storefront that sold basic sundries, where workers would sit and play cards while awaiting a job assignment or to cap off a shift. For today’s regulars, who work in nearby warehouses and at the artisan businesses that now call Red Hook home, Defonte’s offers a glimpse of this neighborhood’s past — and a bite of a once prevalent lunchtime tradition that’s fast disappearing.
Emily’s Pork Store, 426 Graham Avenue, 718-383-7216
Walk into Emily’s Pork Store in the historically Italian neighborhood of East Williamsburg, and you’re likely to find owner Gennaro “Jerry” Aliperti playing butcher, sandwich composer, and jokester to customers and friends. Emily’s is a true locals’ place — Aliperti says about 85 percent of his business comes from regulars. This is a specialty store from another time, and it remains committed to old traditions and high standards. Aliperti’s uncle Frank opened the shop in 1974, naming it after his wife. When Aliperti began working here at age thirteen, his first job was stocking the wooden shelves with canned Italian products. He soon learned to make sausages and to butcher. This is still a neighborhood meeting place, and you’ll hear lightning-fast Italian spoken as you scan a menu that has changed very little over 41 years. Here’s a helpful hint: Emily’s makes the best Italian sandwiches in Brooklyn. Choose one of two bread selections — both made by Aliperti’s cousin at Napoli Bakery just down the street on Metropolitan Avenue — from a center shelf and hand it to Aliperti. Regulars do this as soon as they enter the shop, and they always choose (correctly) the crusty French-style baguette over the thicker sub-style roll. Skip the rudimentary sandwich board and take a few minutes to peruse the specialty cheeses and meats. Once you’ve ogled the soppressata, mortadella, prosciutto cotto, and wine-soaked umbriaco, get Aliperti’s seasoned opinion on what’s best and just go for it. Perhaps it’s the house-made salami, ham, and provolone with fresh roasted sweet peppers, or the sliced rare roast beef, made fresh daily, with jus and marinated peppers. Or you might like some fresh roast pork and maybe a little bresaola (top round that has been salted and dried) with Jerry’s homemade mozzarella. Everything is sliced to order, and everything is priced far below the New York mean.
Ferdinando’s Focacceria, 151 Union Street, 718-855-1545
Inhale the same scent of warm bread and sweet garlic that locals have been enjoying inside Ferdinando’s Focacceria for more than 110 years. “Nothing’s changed,” says Francesco (“call me Frank, everyone does”) Buffa. “You make the food. People like the food. Why would you change?” The restaurant is seriously old-school, with brown walls covered in black-and-white photos, Sinatra on loop, and red sauce. It’s determinedly not fancy. Buffa has been in charge for almost half a century. “My father-in-law taught me the recipes,” he says. “Everything comes under my nose.” Hearty sandwiches made with freshly baked bread entice a lunchtime crowd, while at dinner those in the know order melt-in-the-mouth meatballs, arancina blanketed in sweet tomato sauce, and a range of exceptional Sicilian specialties. Don’t miss the panelle, a fried chickpea pastry served with fresh ricotta, or the freshly made burrata, the perfect partner to smoky grilled eggplant. Pasta con sarde is a house favorite made with sardines, wild fennel, pine nuts, raisins, and a saffron sauce. Wine is “red or white. Imported. What do you like? I’ll get you a glass,” says Buffa. Save room if you can for a house-made cannoli — among the best in the city. This is a meal almost outside time, generous and warm, served the way it always has been, with passion and pride.
Frankies 457 Spuntino, 457 Court Street, 718-403-0033
In the decade since opening borough mainstay Frankies 457 Spuntino, the two Franks (Falcinelli and Castronovo) who run this place have gone on to launch three more restaurants and an olive oil company, and to venture out of their kitchens to host a travel show for Vice. All this from a single renovated Carroll Gardens smithy serving hefty sandwiches, straight-shooting pastas, and high-quality Italian small plates (like briny braised octopus with dandelion greens and Castelvetrano olive vinaigrette). Castronovo and Falcinelli oversaw the renovations themselves, using reclaimed materials before that was considered commonplace. Pioneers of the crostini fever that has spread throughout the city in recent years, the Franks keep things fresh with inspired topping combinations (think pillowy ricotta with speck and kale, mixed with harissa aioli). If Italian food speaks to simplicity and showcasing the best ingredients, Spuntino puts its best foot forward — even during dessert, when old-school favorites like tiramisu and red-wine-soaked prunes reign supreme. Locals flock to the idyllic courtyard when weather permits, their tables littered with carafes and bottles selected from the all-Italian wine list (many of which fetch a reasonable $40 or less). Spuntino stands tall as one of the most archetypal restaurants of “new Brooklyn.”
Locanda Vini e Olii, 129 Gates Avenue, 718-622-9202
The ambiance at Locanda Vini e Olii is low-key and convivial. The wine lists (one for reds, one for whites) are glued to upcycled empties, like labels. The décor retains much of the old-timey charm of the location’s prior incarnation — a pharmacy that served its Clinton Hill neighborhood for more than a century. But don’t get these folks wrong: Co-owners Michael Schall (general manager), Michele Baldacci (executive chef), and Rocco Spagnardi (sommelier) and their staff are utterly serious about traditional Tuscan cooking — and they’re damned good at it. (Husband and wife François Louy and Catherine de Zagon Louy opened Locanda in 2001 and turned it over to the current trio in 2010.) You know you’re in for something out of the ordinary when your server brings the bread, made in house from a recipe devoid of salt (note what that does to crust and crumb!) and served with olive oil. Baldacci’s menu is painstakingly designed to show off the distinctive foods and rustic preparations of his native Florence. Our strategy: Bring friends. Start with a cocktail — likely mixed with homemade bitters and liqueurs — and some marinated anchovies or sardines. Marvel at the charcuterie del mare, which includes a soppressata made with octopus, and a tuna salami. Don’t shy from dishes made with offal — a risotto topped with pan-seared chicken livers, or tripe stewed with tomatoes. Pay special attention to the pasta course; all of the noodles are made in house. And if you can’t narrow down to a single dish from the grill — duck breast or Piedmontese beef “tagliata”? — get them both. Groups on a budget can avail themselves of a four-course, $48 tasting menu; the restaurant also stages seasonal five-course wine dinners, with each dish paired to a wine from a particular region or producer.
Noodle Pudding, 38 Henry Street, 718-625-3737
Brooklyn’s claim to great Italian restaurants ranges from old trattorias to modern takes on the motherland’s disparate regions. Somewhere in the middle is Noodle Pudding, a signless Brooklyn Heights eatery that has been feeding locals for two decades. Antonio Migliaccio (migliaccio, a sweet, pasta-based dish from the island of Ischia — a noodle pudding — isn’t on the menu, sad to say) opened this place in the Nineties, fusing his Neapolitan culinary upbringing with what he could find in the local markets. Today the restaurant runs at its own unique cadence, akin to the haphazard, welcoming ambiance you’d encounter in Italy, as opposed to the measured march of a typical New York dinner. If you’re after seasonal ingredients and contemporary presentations, turn your attention to the specials list, which is nearly as long as the menu and includes pastas, appetizers, and entrées. The five-course “Trust Me” tasting menu may be offered, likely served by members of the kitchen staff. Many diners come for the mainstays, however, for those are the dishes that bring comfort. Order a pasta or two (half-portions, if you want) — tagliatelle bolognese, say, or rigatoni alla siciliana — pair your meal with a bottle or two of inexpensive red wine, and finish with tiramisu. Be sure to say goodbye to the bartender on the way out — he’ll be waving at you.
Randazzo’s Clam Bar, 2017 Emmons Avenue, 718-615-0010
When Randazzo’s Clam Bar opened in 1932, it was a waterfront fishmonger and bar. In the decades following, it became a Sheepshead Bay icon, thanks in part to its expansion into a full-fledged restaurant serving matriarch Helen Randazzo’s Italian-American recipes. It’s still a family operation — fourth-generation owner Paul Randazzo weathered Hurricane Sandy from inside the restaurant, escaping via raft when things got too dicey. Bivalves draw the crowds, but it’s the kitchen’s famed sauce, made with tomatoes stewed for hours, that keeps folks coming back for more. Ladled over steamed, fried, or raw seafood, the sauce’s chile heat creeps to a low rumble. Pastas arrive in heaping portions, stained red and hiding a bevy of shrimp or calamari. A special of “marinated, burned chicken” delivers on its promise, though it’s more of a welcome char. Saddle up to the bar in search of chowder, and a waiter’s likely to demand, “Red or white?” Either’s a safe bet, though the Manhattan red hits with a tangy tomato zest like that of the sauce. Savor the namesake mollusk slurped raw, fried, or baked in the shell, chopped and tossed with breadcrumbs and herbs. These days the restaurant’s neon lobster sign cycles through a rainbow of colors, lighting up Emmons Avenue like an undersea rave. Take a seat inside. Even if you’re not on anything, ecstasy abounds.
Robicelli’s, 9009 Fifth Avenue, 917-509-6048
In 2008 Allison and Matt Robicelli began selling what they call their “working-class pastries” at the DeKalb Market and other outlets throughout NYC. They garnered a passionate following, and soon it came time for them to open a storefront of their own. And so the South Brooklyn natives picked an address in their lifelong neighborhood, Bay Ridge. Thanks to their sophisticated twists on ubiquitous desserts, Robicelli’s draws a regular audience not just from its own neighborhood, but of the many New Yorkers willing to brave the R train, plus pastry hounds from New Jersey and Connecticut, too. They come in droves for whimsical desserts like Nutelasagna, a combination of pasta, cannoli cream, Nutella, roasted hazelnuts, and chopped chocolate with toasted Italian meringue on top. The couple’s following may range far and wide, but the Robicellis’ real ambition is to foster community and create something similar to gathering places they loved while they were growing up. At Robicelli’s, it’s not uncommon to see young parents wiping frosting off their kids’ faces, bus drivers eating banana pudding pie, and old ladies snacking on scones. Rich pastries aren’t exclusionary, after all.
Rocco’s Italian Cafeteria, 6408 Hamilton Parkway, 718-833-2109
“Just like Mama used to make” is one of those idioms people abuse, but at this Dyker Heights seafood-centric Italian restaurant, Mom practically wrote the recipe book. One week after opening Rocco’s Italian Cafeteria, owner Rocco Bruno faced a nightmare obstacle when his chef unexpectedly quit. His mother stepped in and schooled the kitchen crew, and the rest is history — nearly twenty years of it. Crunchy, greaseless, and sliced into thick rings, the squid earns its place on the neon sign that runs along the top of the restaurant’s façade. Dip the pieces into herb-rich marinara or a similar version amped up with chile peppers. A long steam table of antipasti stretches across the length of the dining room. Shuffle down the line and make your decision fast. When things get busy, ordering with a sense of purpose might just get you an extra scoop of marinated octopus salad. Choosing from the rest of the Southern Italian menu yields a treasure trove of red-sauce classics with sides to match, in particular the flawless vegetable sautés. Make a beeline for the restaurant on Fridays, when the cooks transform whole squid into edible taxidermy, stuffing them with seasoned breadcrumbs.
Roman’s, 243 DeKalb Avenue, 718-622-5300
Some people didn’t know what to make of it when Andrew Tarlow (see Diner elsewhere in this list, or any of several of his other ventures — Marlow & Sons, Reynard — that could easily merit inclusion) revamped his Bonita space in Fort Greene in late December 2009, switched from family-friendly Mexican to grown-up Italian, and reopened as Roman’s. Whaddaya mean, the menu changes every damn day? Whaddaya mean, the pasta plates are teensy? Whaddaya mean, I can’t make a reservation? But chef Dave Gould stuck to his guns, banking on the long-term appeal of carefully sourced, seasonally available ingredients and simply but painstakingly prepared dishes. All the little things, in other words, done right. Who’s complaining now? Only the people too impatient to wait for a seat. The narrow, white-painted space is spare but intimate, with about as many tables as you have toes and a roughly equivalent number of stools at the marble-topped bar. Service is confident and low-key. A Valentine’s Day visit brought an even smaller menu than usual — and a memorable meal highlighted by a pesce-perfect spaghetti alle vongole and duck breast done to a turn with salsa verde and potatoes fried in duck fat on the side. Maybe it was the amorous nature of the occasion, but so smitten were we with the roasted oyster presented as a starter that we requested (and received) an encore for dessert. Don’t go looking for a long list of specialty cocktails; Roman’s flies by the seat of its drinking pants, too. As you might expect, the wine list zeroes in on Italy. As you might not, Lee Campbell — she’s wine director for all of the Tarlow group’s restaurants — has been spotlighting the wines of Slovenia and Croatia of late. (But don’t hold us to that — she’s previously focused on single producers and regions like the Italian Riviera.)
Rucola, 190 Dean Street, 718-576-3209
Boerum Hill is historic in every way other than its name — a coinage that dates only as far back as the 1960s, before which the neighborhood was the antithesis of trendy and known as North Gowanus. Business partners (and cousins) Julian Brizzi and Henry Rich brought their first restaurant into the world in much the same fashion that Boerum Hill brownstoners bootstrapped the area up from blight: with persistence and a stubborn disregard for the obstacles one faces when undertaking a gut rehab. When Rucola opened in the spring of 2011 with chef Joe Pasqualetto running the kitchen, a hungry neighborhood rejoiced. “The night we opened, we had 150 people,” says Pasqualetto. “Within two weeks we were doing breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They were lined up outside. It was a shotgun start.” The name is Italian for arugula, and it’s an apt one. Rucola’s concise, constantly changing menu is vegetable forward, with a focus on straightforward preparations that showcase the cuisine of Northern Italy. Salads are a mainstay (though we have a hard time resisting the crudo of the day). During the cold months, a short rib of beef with spaetzle, savoy cabbage, and roasted turnips warms the belly just as the rustically intimate, convivially populated, 50-seat space soothes the soul — abetted, of course, by a thoughtfully curated list of wines (many bottles priced under $40), grappas, and amari. And even in a brunch-saturated city, Rucola’s rendition is revered, especially by the restaurant’s hardcore regulars.