Where Familiarity Breeds Contentment
Loyal fans come to this Eastchester eatery not so much for the Italian comfort food but for the comfort of being treated like family—or honored guests.
It’s not easy being an upscale Italian restaurant these days—the competition seems to come from all angles. Neighborhoods routinely have at least one good Italian deli. Family eateries—even pizza joints—often deliver great bang for the buck. Then you have every “grill” or “cafÃ©” turning out pasta in sundry permutations. And let’s not forget about that island called Manhattan, where Italian cooking has never been better.
Theoretically at least, white-tablecloth Italian restaurants in Westchester have to excel in their food. Choice ingredients. Careful preparation. A dash of flair, even. Which is precisely why I cannot totally grasp how Pinocchio in Eastchester has maintained a lofty culinary reputation. During several recent visits, I found that the misses outnumbered the hits.
Consider, for example, a mid-January menu featuring a fresh tomato salad. I steered clear, but couldn’t help but overhear a diner at another table ask a waiter, “Where do you get your tomatoes this time of year?” The response was an animated shrug.
Of the appetizers we did sample, the best was an arugula salad with walnuts, featuring a balance of bitterness, nuttiness and tang from big shavings of Parmigiano Reggiano. A fresh mozzarella appetizer paired mild cheese and tomatoes with raisins, pine nuts and oil-marinated roasted red peppers. An out-of-season stuffed artichoke didn’t fare all that well—cheese provided the only flavor. A portobello dish, smothered with a balsamic sauce and red, yellow and green peppers, masked the mushroom’s inherent earthiness.
EntrÃ©es sampled at Pinocchio were similarly flawed, sometimes suffering from overaggressive flavor, sometimes too little. A veal rollantine special one evening sounded enticing: veal pounded thin and rolled with fontina cheese and prosciutto and prepared in a red wine sauce. The execution, however, was too salty. By contrast, osso buco, the classic Italian braised veal shank, offered as a special another night, was absolutely tender, but practically unseasoned.
Two pasta dishes also occupied opposite ends of the flavor spectrum. Fusilli Mediterraneo combined perfectly al dente spirals with a heady mix of artichokes, sun-dried tomatoes and capers. It reminded me of a similar dish I order often at another restaurant, but which also includes chicken. Not that the other dish is so memorable, but in Pinocchio’s case, the end result struck me as too pungent without the extra protein. Meanwhile, a simple spaghetti with “fresh” shrimp, was delicate but somewhat dull.
Wines at Pinocchio are generally good, with a selection of Italian bottlings and some California crowd-pleasers. But the fact that the list comes printed with descriptions but not vintages is a sign that the wine is not an ongoing priority. When our young server one night was asked the producer of the house Montepulciano, he responded “d’Abruzzo”—which is the region. Not to worry, though, the wine was quite tasty.
For desserts here, choose the tiramisu or gelato (or perhaps the very popular ricotta cheesecake, which was already sold out by 8 p.m. one night).
Of course, there is more to a restaurant than food. And a busy Saturday night reveals Pinocchio’s endearing side. When the two small dining rooms hit their stride, the peachy tone of the walls no longer seems so plain, the minimal decor no longer seems so sparse. Filled with people clearly enjoying one another’s company, the room fluctuates between cozy and lively.
The service is genuinely warm and happily busy—mellifluous Italian accents become a palpable part of the atmosphere. And an extraordinary percentage of diners elicit special greetings. Indeed, the staff seems more committed to everyone’s dining pleasure than at most restaurants you’ll visit in Westchester. (Even our wine-challenged waiter eagerly went to find out the winery in question.)
In retrospect, it must be the intangibles of the dining experience that have earned Pinocchio its devoted fans. People may not come for the food these days. They come to get treated part like family, part like honored guests. Clearly this is a restaurant where familiarity breeds contentment. No wonder no one seems to mind that the women’s restroom has a shower; or that the men’s (directly off the main dining room!) has peeling wallpaper and no sign on the door.
09 White Plains Road, Eastchester
Tue. to Thurs. 5-10 pm
Fri. to Sat. 5-11 pm,
Sun. 5-9 pm