"I hear it's really hard to get into Baldoria?" asks a co-worker. "Must be like that Alain Ducasse place, huh?"
Ducasse's exclusivity is based on a fistful of Michelin stars, seating capacity as limited as the number of men who don't get queasy during the first of the Vagina Monologues, and that elusive trait known as pedigree. Baldoria's phone immediately started ringing off the hook because of that seal of approval known as ancestry. It is the offspring of the city's most legendary mom-and-pop stand, Rao's, the restaurant with more Vinnys, Tonys, Dannys, Joeys, Tommys, Frankies, and Ginos than an early Scorsese film, the Italian restaurant Elaine's wishes it was, the only reason many white city folk ever longed to go north of 110th Street.
For years, people whose names don't end in a vowel have begged distant relatives, contentious old flames, people they are separated from by way more than six degrees, concerning even the possibility of anyone knowing someone who has an in with owner Frank Sr. (no, he is not a Frankie). Is it worth all this aggravation to get into a cramped, noisy, smoky joint, Sensurrounded by Jerry Vale (whose newest recording has the album title of the year: Mob Hits), for a familiar menu featuring lots of pasta with red sauce? Yeah. There may be more original Southern Italian food in town, but Rao's has the kind of electrifying energy one encounters at bistro Tout Va Bien when the French fleet's in or in Chinatown during the start of the Year of Another Animal. You're still in New York, but you never imagined this Brigadoon existed, and when you leave, you swear no one will believe what you experienced.
Is Baldoria a mussel off the old zuppa di pesce, then, especially since it's run by Frank (some instant regulars call him Frankie, but it doesn't fit anyone this quietly cool) Pellegrino Jr.? Well, the genes kind of deem it so. But not really. In fact, Baldoria is bigger, roomier, friendlier -- if that's possible -- more effortlessly joyous, more comfortable, less insidery, better staffed, and better lit, and, to top it off, you're going to wind up better fed.
Those ads on TV got it wrong. Here is the real Olive Garden. Because if there's anyone on either of two floors who doesn't look as happy to be where he is, I never saw him. Try to be in a bad mood here. Try to have a fight here. Even Jackie Mason's perpetual crankiness would wilt, for the all-embracing mood is set by Dean Martin singing "That's Amore" followed by "Everybody Loves Somebody" (and he will almost every night). Frank Jr., Joe, Danny, and a swarming blue-shirted staff sustain it with an easy affability wisely pulling short of back-slapping. This may be the only place where you actually want to know your waiter's name. He or she will ask for yours, too -- and won't forget it next time. You'll see.
You're going to want to know the chef's name, too. It's Michael Scheill. It doesn't sound it, but he's Frank's cousin -- what did you expect? -- from the old country. Colorado. Who thought anyone living in Mountain Standard Time knew from such blissfully light and ungummy, succulent seafood risotto, with a faint, beckoning sweetness from a flash of champagne? Scheill traveled east, but the velvety bufala mozzarella in his caprese is flown in from Italy every day. A handsome salad of wild fennel, fava beans, asparagus, and bufala ricotta is too monotonously smooth, but endive-and-black-truffle salad is a lovely combination of silk and sass.
The two soups, pasta e fagioli and escarole, are merely pleasant -- but grab a soup spoon for the broths in the terrific clams and the perfect mussels, both in white wine, a textbook example of how garlic really can inspire perfume swoon. It's guzzle time. The center of your table demands a piled-high insalata di mare. Clams oreganata are what people flock to little Italy for, except no one there gets them right. They do here. Of course, bread crumbs are as classy as adding Lipton onion-soup mix to your meat loaf. But damn, they're good. And so is pappardelle with a tarragon-zapped mushroom ragú; spaghetti in a gentle marinara; tender, clean gnocchi in a densely spunky Bolognese of veal, pork, beef, and tomato; and orecchiette, whose broccoli rabe and sausage get goosed by a blast of peperoncino.
Broiled half-chicken in lemon and vinegar is a hallowed Rao's tradition. Baldoria does proper homage. Veal done Milanese is unthreateningly customary. Done pizzaola, it's cheesy fun. Drowned in tonnato (canned-tuna sauce), it's one of those infamous dishes like eggs Benedict whose vulgar appeal is as head-thwacking as Roberto Benigni's, but if you love it, here's the real thing. What you should dive for, however, is a wrist-thick veal T-bone set ablaze with cherry peppers. Equally attack-worthy are shrimp, both fra diavolo and oreganata; beefsteak Fiorentina, an eye-rolling, brashly seasoned Rabelaisian rib chop for two; and an elegant half-rack of Colorado lamb in a totally surprising sauce, delicately enhanced by mint.
Usually, it's advisable to end an Italian dinner with berries and a glass of muscato. But desserts are dangerously good. Cassata, a bombe filled with hazelnut crème, has the audacity to combine chocolate with ricotta cheese and turns out bizarrely addictive. An airy almond panna cotta has uncloying, insidiously tantalizing cherry sauce, and the bittersweet chocolate pot de crème is yet more reason to get stupidly giddy.
But Baldoria is full of them. Clone this place, and it could print money in Vegas, London, and Paris sure as Sinatra's first notes inspire sing-alongs. In fact, if Frank Pellegrino Jr. opened a 500-seat version in the shadow of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, he could rule Bay Ridge. Right now, he'll have to settle for crown prince of the theater district. Frank Sr. should be bursting. Well, maybe. Because as full up as Baldoria is getting -- one woman has a table booked on Tuesdays for the next twelve years -- getting in there is still easier than getting into Rao's. But at the risk of being banned uptown for life, I'd rather savor my bread crumbs on 49th. Even if there's no bruiser outside named Benny offering to watch my car.
Baldoria, 249 West 49th Street (212-582-0460). Monday through Saturday, 6 to 11 p.m. Appetizers, $7.50 to $16.50; entrées, $18 to $32. A.E., M.C., V.