55 E. Houston St.
Ballato’s clubbiness can seem off-putting, especially as owner Emilio Vitolo scrutinizes newcomers from his front corner table. But there are ways to make newbies feel at home; maybe it’s the gratis starter of spicy homemade sausage bread or Vitolo’s quick hello. As the third owner of this storied restaurant since 1956, Vitolo favors unfussy preparations of classic dishes. Almost all are winners. Hearty rigatoni alla Bolognese comes in a thick sauce with beef, veal, and pork, while baked shrimp benefits from pristine seafood and simple garlic and bread crumbs. An extensive and reasonable wine list includes Ballato’s own label, produced by a Tuscan friend. A private dining space in back has hosted celebs like Billy Joel, Lenny Kravitz, and Tom Hanks, while a central-casting mix of outer-borough Italians, younger locals, and wide-eyed tourists people the spare main dining room. The club vibe pervades, but doesn’t exclude: If Vitolo doesn’t know your name when you’re seated, he will by the time you’ve finished your espresso and nibbled on a plate of on-the-house biscotti.