Even now, in this age of truffled lobster risotto and monkfish osso buco, there are places where calling your dinner "red-sauce Italian" isn't an insult. Bensonhurst. Arthur Avenue. Even Times Square, if you count Carmine's. But for most urban sophisticates, the sight of a Chianti-bottle candleholder atop a red-checked tablecloth prompts one sardonic response: Been there, eaten that. We tend to forget that an exquisitely wrought meatball is as elusive as the perfect soufflé. And once in a while, we need a dose of the garlicky glory days that some people would happily forget. Which is why we were glad to discover that two restaurants have instituted a weekly one-night stand of Italian-American favorites that can't help but remind you of your own Italian grandmother -- or the one you wish you had.
One-month-old Merge isn't an Italian restaurant, but co-owner Sam DeMarco knows his Italian cuisine. Before he opened First in the East Village, and before he and partner Gino Diaferia made Merge into the new nexus of West Village hip, DeMarco spent his formative culinary years in Bensonhurst. So while it's true that "Gino's Soprano Style Sunday Dinner" is a gimmicky tie-in to the HBO series -- beginning at the barely-past-brunch hour of 4 p.m. to ensure that you're home in front of the tube by the time Tony gets on the Jersey Turnpike -- you can be certain that DeMarco isn't taking cooking tips from the Mafia Cookbook. He's working purely from memory, drawing on years of early-Sunday family dinners where "the food just kept coming and coming and didn't end until you crawled under the table."
In that belt-loosening spirit, DeMarco pays loving tribute to his leisurely family feasts with a superb Italian-American multicourse dinner that at $25 per person (plus $8 for unlimited red and white house wine) is an absolute steal. All that, plus a cool, comfortable room, a friendly staff that keeps the Chianti flowing, and an irresistibly festive mood, makes Sundays at Merge a family gathering worth arriving early for and lingering late, even if it means missing another sexually charged session with Dr. Melfi.
Clearly, DeMarco wants to do unto us as was done unto him. There's antipasto even before the antipasto. As soon as we settle in, our waitress announces a gift from the kitchen: rice balls, dressed up in their Sunday best with little Parmesan tuile hats. Almost as artfully arranged on large white platters is the cold antipasto that follows: ricotta salata, marinated sweet red peppers, prosciutto and tiny melon balls, spinach frittata, marinated mushrooms, insalata alla caprese -- everything exceedingly fresh and ripe. Next up, more antipasto, this time hot: tender, crispy-fried calamari; terrific garlicky mussels steamed in white wine; baked eggplant parmigiana; and perfectly grilled asparagus in a fragrant Parmesan broth.
"Ready for more?" taunts the waitress, toting plates of well-dressed Caesar salad, a relatively dainty prelude to the pièce de résistance: ricotta-topped rigatoni with "Brooklyn meat gravy," including a daunting medley of "Grandma Greco's" greatest hits -- sweet Italian sausage, delectable meatballs, and killer braciola stuffed with pine nuts, parsley, and garlic. Most sentient beings might stop there, but since this is a prix fixe and dessert's included, along comes the homemade cheesecake with berry coulis. New York-style, instead of ricotta -- no disrespect intended, Grandma.
no one dare disrespect grandma b., the reigning matriarch at Marylou's. For twenty years, Vera Baratta -- mother of the late Marylou and grandmother of current owner Peter Baratta -- has been a constant presence at the cozy, subterranean late-night Village hangout known for its fresh seafood and Continental fare, keeping the books in the office and, since February, spending every Tuesday in the kitchen, browning meatballs and making sauce. A handwritten sign posted at the top of the stairs says it all: "Tuesday nights Grandma B. cooks old-world Italian, 5 p.m.-12."
At home in Bensonhurst, Baratta cooks Italian all the time, which was part of the problem. She'd feed Peter and hordes of his friends, mostly regulars at the restaurant who'd come over to watch the fights or a ball game. Finally, she made Peter an offer he couldn't refuse: Move the Friday-night feasts to the restaurant.
The regulars just went from being houseguests to forming the core of the Tuesday-night crowd, and you can't miss them: They're the heavyset guys in the barroom who greet each other with a kiss on the cheek and make room for Grandma when she comes out of the kitchen in her housecoat to kibbitz. She's a welcome bit of authenticity in a room that might otherwise reek of clichés, including the wax-encrusted Chianti bottles and the recurring Godfather soundtrack.
Rather than rely on the restaurant's purveyors, Baratta insists on doing her own shopping on Eleventh Avenue in Brooklyn and buying all her meat from Faicco's; the hot peppers, basil, and mint come from her garden. She lugs her frying pans -- even her wooden spoon -- into the city because she's used to them. Otherwise, she couldn't make her baked clams oreganato, her excellent crusty garlic bread, her soul-satisfying pork chops with vinegar peppers, and her spaghetti and meatballs. She might look like a sweet old lady, but when Grandma B.'s in residence, she's in complete control.
"We work together in the kitchen," says Peter. "I really don't do much, but I do make chicken cacciatore." At least he did make it, until one fateful night. "I was sitting out in the dining room talking to some people and she came out and she was very upset. She was yelling at me, 'Where did you learn how to cook like this? What house did you grow up in?' Everyone in the dining room got a big laugh out of it."
Family dramas, old-fashioned cooking, a regular crowd, and no more second-rate cacciatore. If Marylou's served this menu all week, it might not be so enticing. But who could pass up the chance to eat Grandma's cooking, especially when it comes around only on Tuesdays?