Luna’s at 112 Mulberry Street has a fine old tradition of three-star raids. Crazy Joe Gallo got pinched here twice. And rackets magnate Anthony Strollo, likewise known as Tony Bender, was an after-midnight regular until he mysteriously disappeared. More recently Luna was raided merely for serving wine without a license. But if you’re thirsty, say the magic word Chianti and more likely than not, a bottle will appear.
You think the staff may fly into panic at the entrance of a brass-buttoned patrolman. But no. One strolled in at dinner recently and was practically embraced by a waiter. “He’s my friend,” the waiter announced. “He won’t do nothing to me.” Friendly officer was escorted to the kitchen for supper. It’s a New York custom. Think of the policeman on the 57th Street beat who takes his lunch in the kitchen of Le Pavillon.
Luna fans fill the garish narrow trattoria freshly painted Easter-egg blue beneath its fabled mural—Vesuvius, a light bulb tucked into its mouth, a neon moon above. The affection is two-way. “Here you are, you nut,” says the waitress serving a plate of steaming mussels.
The menu is more adventurous than most: several homemade pastas, tripe, brains, veal knuckle (Thursday), steak in Neapolitan or Sicilian style. Portions are large, prices low, 29 entrées at $2 or less…and the service can be whimsically cavalier. At first you are amused, then humble, then fretful…then choleric. There is a full house and two waiters: across the room, a dashing professional; your waiter, a bustling bumbler. He forgets the table cloth…que sera…forgets the bread, serves one guest a watery minestrone several minutes after the other guests have finished their antipasto, and exactly 90 seconds before arriving with her entrée. No problem really. The soup is inedible anyway. The hot antipasto ($1.75) is dull and under-seasoned, clams dry, langoustine tough but the eggplant is lovely.
The waiter is so cheerful. “Here you are, please,” he sings, delivering mussels in a red wine sauce ($1.75), though we asked for white. The red is far too robust, overpowering the delicate mussels. Calamari Arrigante* ($2.25) is squid layered with buttery, magnificently seasoned crumbs. The chicken cacciatore ($2.25) unappetizingly dismembered into tiny pieces with cracked shins and marrow exposed is sharp with the unpleasant taste of burnt garlic and rich with mushrooms.
But the faces…I felt a chill as a burly chap in black bowler walked in. That battered face. A button (trigger) man for sure. Then, disappointment. He sat down…back wantonly to the door and proceeded to discuss Merce Cunningham with a lady companion.
*The spelling of dishes on Italian restaurants’ menus is as variable as their tomato sauces.
Loving ghosts haunt Lombardi’s at 53rd Spring Street—shades of a little Appalachin raid in 1965 –but there was not a customer at table at 12:45 one Wednesday afternoon. Calico privacy drapes the storefront window and the dining room is freshly brocaded. There is a shrine for religious devotion, an orchid tree and a massive stern-faced woman, guardian of the cash box; I suspect she came from Naples in that very chair, straight from shouting “putana” at Sophia Loren in some Carlo Ponti production. Out of the kitchen strolls a distraught creature in a shower cap, clutching a bunch of parsley. The hot antipasto is fair ($1.75): stuffed zucchini, stuffed mushroom, stuffed red pepper, stuffed mussels…the same bland stuffing. Fettucine Alfredo, homemade ($2.75) but stingily sauced. Stuffed breast of veal ($2.75), obviously out of the fridge, was still ice cold inside, served with rubbery roast potato and oversteamed escarole. It tasted better after re-heating, hearty, filling and profusely mushroomed. The white wine was warm…the waiter adlibbed an ice cube. Asked for a homemade dessert, he appeared with the remnants of a giant ricotta cassata, creamed cheese and cake melded and moist, too cold but very good. I must have a Sicilian sweet tooth.
There is a refreshing simplicity about Vincent’s Clam Bar, corner of Mott and Hester Streets, at counter, in booth: The choice is littleneck clams on the half shell ($1.50 a dozen), shrimps, scungili (conch), calamari (squid), mussels (small $1.25, large $2.40) or combinations thereof ($2.40) and hunks of Italian bread doused in a fiery red sauce: very hot or much-too-hot. Stubborn snob that I am — nothing’s too hot for me — I ignored the warning. After four forkfuls of squid and conch, my mouth was anesthetized. The prudent Kultur maven fared far better with his hot shrimp and mussels.
Vincent’s traffic never stills. Friday it’s a must. Turnover is swift. Out informant from narcotics control almost wept as he recalled a surveillance in Vincent’s. “I wasn’t going to eat but I couldn’t resist. Just as they served the scungili, the guy I’m tailing leaves.” Talk about conflict.
Paolucci’s, one flight up at 149 Mulberry Street, an old Van Rensselaer pad, has been called Le Pavillon of Little Italy. Perhaps it’s the altitude. The place does have dignity. Also, acres of red brocade. It is family-run. Everything is cooked to order…à la carte…and drinks with ice cubes cost 10 cents extra. Entrees are mostly $2.25 to $2.75. The homemade hot antipasto (for two, $2.50) lost much of its individuality in a blanket of tomato sauce. The cold antipasto ($1.25) was more successful…everything fresh and of superior quality. Homemade roasted red peppers (.90) were magnificent but a stuffed artichoke ($1.25), perfectly cooked and choke removed, was a bit blandly seasoned. The bread was hot, fresh and wondrously crusty. Percitelli a filet di pomidoro ($2) turned out to be fat spaghetti in a light savory tomato sauce flavored with basil and minced prosciutto. Veal Rolatini ($2.60) was brown and crisp outside, tender and moist within, its stuffing a savory blend of cheese and prosciutto. Even the potato croquette tasted “to order.” Broiled sea bass ($2.75) was perfectly done, lightly garlicked, sprinkled with pungent flat-leafed Italian parsley.
But the masterpiece was an order of Italian broccoli sautéed in oil, garlicky and so brilliant a green one cynic suspected a dash of illicit bicarbonate of soda has gone into the pot.
Even Pavillon has its haute catastrophes. Paolucci’s downfall was the zuppa di pesce, ($4.75)…a mild, almost sweetly-scented fish soup of baby clams, tenderest squid, juicy shrimp and…disaster…great chunks of not-quite-cooked bass.
We ordered cheesecake to chase the spectre of the zuppa. But it was still baking. Demi-tasse was brought to the table with a bottle of Anisette. The service was polite and professional.
Little Augie Pisano was shot to death with Gian Marino’s recipe for clam sauce in his pocket. Grazie Dio. Little Augie departed still garlicky and glowing from his last supper. That was 1959. Today Gian Marin’s clam sauce is hardly worth getting shot for. It is stingily ladled over gummy linguini and under-garlicked.
Still there is this to be said for Marino’s: The food is edible, often good, occasionally commendable and at 716 Lexington it is only a few steps from Bloomingdale’s. Perhaps it is the dim lighting or the waiters editorializing in Italian that makes Marino’s a twilight zone, free of shopping-bag tension.
At the lunch hour peak there is waiting. The crowd is eclectic: shopping tourist couples, merchants and salesmen, an African diplomat, a bearded pop-music critic, those glamorous young men who wore Cardin suits before Cardin invented them, a sexagenarian with Lolita and at the next table a bull-necked fellow saying, “I don’t want to get myself killed.” Mother, a nervous visitor from the Middle West, wanted to leave at once. The service was polite and perfunctory. Only friends of the house were offered grindings of fresh pepper and crusty whole wheat bread.
By two on another afternoon, the crowd had thinned. The maître d’ had time to serve a candlelit cake singing “Happy Birthday to You” with operatic bravura to a table of men with that New York face that could be Jewish or Italian.
The menu is banal, á la carte, with most entrées in the $2.50 to $3.75 range at lunch, slightly higher at dinner. The special antipasto ($2) was not at all special. The Wednesday sausages were good but the ziti with it was not well drained, diluting the nondescript sauce ($3.25). Veal cutlet alla Milanese ($3) was crisp and tender. Tomato sauce, served on request, was thick, meaty and well-seasoned. Veal parmigiana ($3.25) was less successful. Clams Oreganate ($2) were six of the tiniest creatures, incredibly tender, juicy under a cover of well-seasoned crumbs.
Ricotta cheesecake, though too cold, was excellent. And the espresso was the true foamy brew from one of those Rube Goldberg machines that could pass for a jukebox.
The walls of Vesuvio are painted. That’s the decor. By the rules of Southern Italian soul you know a place that looks this bad has got to be good. To reach the corner of Liberty and Cleveland you cruise through the tenement wilds of burned-out Brooklyn. Do as our city fathers do. Don’t let the devastation spoil your appetite.
The backroom is hopping…mink stoles…a guy with a suitcase who says, “I came here right from the airport”…very affluent types. There is one table in the bar room, the equivalent of the royal banquette uptown, no doubt. It’s reserved for Jimmy Breslin. We are celebrating his escape from the girdle ads in the New York Post and the movie sale of his novel, The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight.
There are no menus. What do you want? If they’ve got it in the kitchen, ecco la! You order generic: shrimp, veal, calamari. And then by color. Linguini with clam sauce…red or white? The house wine arrives in an unlabeled bottle. And the food, family style, on big oval platters. Sixty baked clams…we are only six. The clams are juicy, garlicky and good. Stuffed mushrooms are less interesting and slightly singed. The linguine, a little overcooked, is beautifully sauced, again, a feast of garlic. The Shrimp, Veal Marsala and Veal Francese are robust country food. The squid is drowning in an oily tomato sauce but tender and good. The leftovers would feed another four. We should have brought Fat Thomas*. The service is pleasant and businesslike, a tribute to the patrone, Tony the Sheik, veteran of Little Appalachin raids at Lombardi’s and La Stella. Well, I knew it wasn’t Tony the Chic. Dinner with demi-tasse and tip is $40.
Vesuvio is moving soon. “To one of those cinderblock joints,” Jimmy glooms. “They’ll probably ruin the place.”
*Fat Thomas was a frequent character in Breslin’s columns edited by my then husband, the Kultur Maven.
La Stella won its three-star rating from the Black Hand gourmet inspection team September 30, 1966, when a swarm of police invade the privacy of a family reunion. La Stella is still worth a side trip to Queens, wherever that is. 102-11 Queens Blvd., Forest Hills, to be precise.
La Stella is busiest at dinner. Service seems slow because everything is cooked to order. At lunch though, you get some very serious eaters. Even so, the lone waiter, an unusually cheerful and friendly chap, reeled at the depth and breadth of our order. “My friend is celebrating her divorce,” I adlibbed in an attempt to explain. He provided dimes for our 30-minutes parking meter…and prompt reminders at half-hour intervals.
The hot antipasto ($1.25) failed to survive its blanketing sauce though the shrimp were tender and the eggplant nicely seasoned. Cold antipasto ($1.25) was, again, more refreshing, nothing homemade but everything fresh and of excellent quality. Crisp slivers of zucchini, batter-dipped and deep fried (.90) were marvelous. Properly al dente spaghetti ($1.90) was heady with an abundance of garlic…perfect for me, too much for my friend. The striped bass marechiare ($2.75) was excellent, tender, with the subtlest of herbed tomato bits. Veal Rolatini ($3.25) was tough and dry.
The cheesecake tasted homemade (.50) and the cannoli — that pastry cylinder of creamed cheese with candied fruit and bits of chocolate — prompted such ecstatic groans that the waiter urged us to sit awhile. “It’s only an hour or so till dinner,” he said.
This eponymous eatery, named for founder Charles Rao, opened its doors off Pleasant Avenue in 1896. It evolved into a social and gustatory phenomenon, a place where dinner reservations are about as hard to come by as a cheap one-bedroom with Central Park views.
Hecklers are the worst. Most people just tell them to shut up, but mobster Louis Barone is not most people. When Albert Circelli wouldn’t stop mocking Broadway vet Rena Strober’s performance of “Don’t Rain on My Parade” at Rao’s, Barone silenced him by shooting him in the back with his .38. Barone went to jail, but a suitcase full of limbs turned up outside Rao’s seven years later. The place’s mob ties are so famous, Scorsese featured a regular (Johnny Roastbeef) in Goodfellas and used the spot as inspiration.
The NEW YORK “DAILY NEWS” FRONT PAGE
The Morning After Big Paul Castellano Got Whacked
Outside SPARK’S STEAK HOUSE
on West 46th Street Midtown Manhattan
Gambino Family Crime Boss Paul Castellano’s Body
on the sidewalk in front of SPARK’S STEAK HOUSE
New York , NY
December 17 , 1985
Paul (Big Paul) Castellano, the aging and beleaguered kingpin of American organized crime, was shot to death yesterday in front of a midtown steak house in a brazen rubout that investigators said “could determine the future” of the Mafia in this country.
Also killed with Castellano, 70, was Thomas Bilotti, 47, a reputed captain in the Gambino crime family, which Castellano had controlled since 1976. The two victims were both shot in the face by an execution team of three unidentified men who pulled semi-automatic handguns from their trenchcoats, according to investigators.
“This could be the beginning of a war,” said Thomas Sheer, deputy assistant director in charge of the New York office of the FBI. “If it is, this is the first battle.”
One of the gangland assassins reportedly fired a coup de grace shot into Castellano’s head before the three men fled on foot toward Second Ave. A police source said a witness saw one of the gunmen speaking into a walkie-talkie as he ran. The trio then jumped into a black rented Lincoln Town Car, with a New Jersey license plate – ABM 43Z – and made their getaway.