IF New Yorkers are fortunate in having a rapidly growing list of excellent and fashionable restaurants featuring the elegant cuisine of northern Italy, they may be paying a price by having lost most of the simple, casual and dependable neighborhood restaurants that served the more familiar dishes of southern Italy. The simpler restaurants with their familiar if less fashionable southern fare cannot command the prices that enable owners to meet rising costs. One southern Italian restaurant that has managed to remain successful, however, is Joe’s on Macdougal Street in Greenwich Village.
Lunch at this 40-year-old landmark is relaxed and easygoing and, though noisy at dinner, the spirit is always convivial. Some of the food served in the trim, unpretentious modern dining rooms could certainly be classified as excellent. Over-all, however, the kitchen strikes a very good, solid average, and the dining room staff is friendly, thoroughly professional and helpful.
Surprise is not the specialty here, not among appetizers, not in main courses, not in desserts. But if you start with the deep-fried bread, anchovy and mozzarella creation, spiedino alla Romano, you will have as fine a rendition of the dish as can be found in the city. Glistening fresh baked clams, moist and tender under their veneer of breadcrumbs, garlic and oregano, illustrate just how good that dish can be. And the hot antipasto, including shrimp, a baked clam and a silken sliver of eggplant in tomato sauce, is a fine choice – when the shrimp are fresh; on one occasion they had the stale flavor of iodine. Two soups were excellent – the steaming hot pasta e fagioli, with tender beans well seasoned by garlic and bacon, and the lighter Italian egg drop, stracciatella Romano.
Some of the pastas here are far better than others. Forget the heavy, doughy potato gnocchi in a salty, pasty tomato sauce, the bland spaghetti carbonara and the slightly sweet and sticky stuffed shells. Instead, try the lusty spaghetti with olive oil, nut-brown cloves of garlic, anchovies and tiny black Gaeta olives, or the linguine with white clam sauce. The house specialty is ziti alla Joe – a soul-soothing dish of the short tubular pasta under a downy blanket of ricotta and mozzarella cheeses, baked in a mild tomato sauce.
Shrimp fra diavolo was disappointing because the shrimp were not fresh and because the sauce lacked the proper fire. The Italian variation on bouillabaisse, zuppa de pesce – a Friday special – lacked the sparkle it can have when it is cooked to order. As a matter of fact, all daily specials had this failing, so it is safer to avoid them.
But it is doubtful that the fried squid could appear in better form than they do here – golden and greaseless. The baked lobster oreganate also deserves an excellent rating. However, the lobsters run small (about one and one-half pounds) and the price is inordinately high ($22). The menu at Joe’s is only the beginning. for there are innumerable simple Italian dishes available on request. Among those we asked for were the fried cheese sandwich mozzarella in carrozza and striped bass marechiare, distinguished by unually fresh tasting fish and a a richly garlicked light tomato sauce.
The quality of the veal is unsurpassed – tender and full of flavor. Try it in the pungent, lemony piccata, or grilled in one thick chop or two thin ones, or wrapped around a tangy cheese filling and broiled as rollatine. Dry, sauteed mushrooms, savory fried zucchini and subtly garlicked escarole are fine accompaniments. Rugola salad is sprightly and refreshing and is far preferable to the house salad based on iceberg lettuce. Again, very good beef goes into the steak pizzaiuola, lavishly garnished with green peppers, mushrooms, onions and a thin tomato sauce. Chicken scarpariello, in properly sauteed chunks, have a perfect golden haze of garlic.
The Italian cheesecake was mediocre and the rum cake wet and heavy, but the hot zabaglione had an almost magical, velvety thickness and exactly the right accents of marsala and sugar. We cannot remember ever having tasted a better version.
Wines are banal and overpriced, the food moderately expensive. A three-course dinner averages $18 to $20 if one order of pasta is shared as an appetizer.
It would be hard to imagine that anyone who grew up in New York loving the city and its traditions would not harbor at least a small, lurking fondness for Sardi’s. The restaurant has been a theater district landmark since 1921, and much of the Sardi mystique remains intact. It is virtually a club favored by leading lights of the theater and Broadway buffs of all sorts. It is the most popular gathering place for meals before and after the theater, and the No. 1 setting for opening night parties, complete with paparazzi shooting pictures at the door. Those who go to the restaurant to observe celebrities will rarely be disappointed. Those who go for good food that is well served will rarely be satisfied.
For reasons that remain a mystery, food, service and housekeeping at Sardi’s leave almost everything to be desired. Not even the colorful and engaging caricatures of theater personalities can make up for the ceiling’s cracked plaster and peeling paint, and the dirty carpet. Service is perfunctory and careless and waiters never know who gets what.
On the plus side are the excellent acoustics in the downstairs dining room where one can carry on a comfortable conversation even when it is crowded, and the well-made drinks, always generously laced with the appropriate alcohol. A bloody Mary ordered straight up and cold arrives just right, and the Irish coffee is distinguished by the strength of both the coffee and whisky.
In at least a dozen recent visits, we have tried all appetizers, most of the soups, salads, grilled meats and the house and daily specials, as well as salads and desserts. Except for a few dishes to be recommended, all offerings were seriously flawed, either because of overcooking or undercooking, ineptly made and heavy sauces, or stale ingredients.
Even the few recommendations must be made with caveats. The roast beef is flavorful and fine if it is not cold. The lamb chops are good if they are not dried out. The chicken salad of white meat will probably be satisfying if you skip the sweetish Russian dressing and use vinaigrette. Lump crabmeat salad is acceptable if the crabmeat is not past its prime, which it sometimes is. Order the $3.95 white meat of chicken sandwich from the upstairs luncheon club menu and you will have a perfectly acceptable lunch, providing you have it on toast or rye bread and skip the mayonnaise, which is often rancid. Spinach salad is fresh and sparkling and includes crisp nuggets of raw zucchini, but weed out the greasy chunks of ice-cold, half-cooked bacon. The chopped veal patty Parmigiana with the short tubular pasta, mostaccioli, in a meat sauce, has a maverick charm – the sort of lusty fare one might find in a halfway decent pizzeria.
The rest is best forgotten, including the two highly touted house specialties – deviled roast beef bones that taste like deep-fried fat, and cannelloni, which is always a pasty mass, filled with stale, nameless meat and smothered by an orange cheese sauce that suggests a Kraft dinner. For dessert good melon is usually on hand, as well as an above average pound cake. All other cakes, frozen or liqueured, and the puddings and parfaits are inelegantly commercial.
Except for the moderately priced club menu offered in the upstairs dining room at lunchtime, all prices are high. A three-course lunch without drinks can easily add up to $25 and dinner runs even higher. Joe’s Restaurant ** 79 Macdougal Street (473-8834). Atmosphere: Simple, unpretentious modern dining rooms that ar noisy when full. Excellent service. Recommended dishes: Clams oreganate, spiedino alla Romana, mozzarella in carrozza, hot antipasto, pasta e fagioli, stracciatella Romana, linguine with white clam sauce, ziti alla Joe, spaghetti with garlic, oil and anchovies, baked lobster oreganate, striped bass Marechiare, fried squid, veal piccata, grilled veal chop, broiled veal rollatine with dry sauteed mushroom, steak pizzaiuola, chicken scarpariello, fried zucchini, sauteed escarole, rugola salad, zabaglione. Prices: A la carte main courses from $7.25 to $15.50; lobsters are priced according to size. Credit cards: American Express, Visa, MasterCard. Hours: Noon to 11:30 P,M., Wednesday through Monday, closed Tuesday. Reservations: Suggested for parties of four or more. Sardi’s Fair 234 West 44th Street, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue (221-8440). Atmosphere; Convivial Broadway landmark with good acoustics and poor housekeeping; service is careless. Recommended dishes: Clams or oysters on the half shell, white meat of chicken salad with vinaigrette dressing, crabmeat salad, chicken sandwich without mayonnaise, lamb chops, roast beef, chopped veal Parmigiana with mostaccioli, spinach salad, pound cake, melon. Prices: Lunch, a la carte, with main courses from $6.95 to $16.95, complete three course lunch, $7.50 to $12.95 (includes soup or salad, main course, dessert and coffee), dinner, a la carte, with main courses from $8.10 to $18.95, supper, $6.95 to $18.95, brunch, $7.95. Credit cards: All major cards. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 11:30 A.M. to 4 P.M.; dinner, Monday through Thursday, 4 P.M. to 12:30 A.M, Friday and Saturday, 4 P.M. to 1 A.M; Sunday, 4 P.M. to 11 P.M.; supper, Monday through Sunday, 9 P.M. to closing; brunch, Sunday, noon to 3 P.M. Reservations: Suggested. What the stars mean: (None) Poor to fair * Good ** Very good *** Excellent **** Extraordinary These ratings are based on the reviewer’s reaction to food and price in relation to comparable establishments.