Few things are more soothing when the mercury dips or at the end of a grueling week than a steaming bowl of baked ziti or a king-sized serving of chicken parmigiana with a side of spaghetti. Even a simple, crisp-and-cheesy pepperoni pizza (with a nice Chianti) can turn a bad day into a better night. Always satisfying, rarely disappointing, and never uptight, neighborhood red-sauce-and-cheese joints do more than just quench cravings for rich and hearty fare; they nourish the soul with comforting, familiar favorites that go down easy and pair well with the warm, welcoming, and familial vibe that flourishes within their (traditionally wood-paneled) walls.
The website calls this Rivertown institution “The place of Italian family-style classics,” and for generations, it has, indeed, been the place for crowd-pleasing pizza, near-weightless homemade gnocchi, and chicken scarpariello, since 1952. Present-day owner Maurice Giliberti (who left his native Calabria at age 9) was a busboy in high school for namesake Sam Ciancio and bought the business from Sam’s children 34 years ago. “You can sit down and feel comfortable here,” Giliberti says. “It’s not stuffy.”
Generously stuffed with short ribs, the raviolis are made with handcrafted pasta and are a local crave, along with Caesar salad, shrimp scampi, and melt-in-the-mouth veal. “Our veal Sorrentino and veal chop Valdostano are very popular,” notes Giliberti, who’s always an inviting presence in the dining room.
And that pizza: “It’s been the same for 50 years,” he says. And his loyal customers wouldn’t have it any other way.
A staple of Port Chester’s restaurant scene for more than two decades, this cozy, extended-family-run den of all things Italian and comforting quickly became a go-to when it moved to its current digs five years ago — and the Rosaspina brothers, Peter and Andre, run the same show that started when their dad emigrated from Livorno and opened an eatery in Greenwich Village, despite his lack of experience in the kitchen.
“When he closed Livorno after 20 years [in the city] to open a restaurant closer to home in Westchester, his staff and regulars followed,” notes Peter, who says customers come for outstanding chicken scarp on the bone and chicken parm, pasta with vodka or Bolognese sauce, and zuppa di pesce. “We try to make it a fun time,” he says. “We get to know people, and they become like family to us.”
Owner Daniel Santiago is not Italian, but he sure knows Italian food: “I’ve been here for 33 years,” he says, recalling how, as a teenager, he started out washing dishes and bussing tables at this 43-year-old slice-of-
heaven-in-a-strip-mall before working his way into the kitchen, to really get his hands dirty. He took the reins six years ago and has retained the longtime waitstaff and chef, who’s been whipping up distinctly down-home Italian specialties for more than three decades. “Everybody knows me and all the waiters, because we’re like a family.”
Santiago says servers divine what regulars are going to eat before they open theirmouths, choosing from standouts like penne a la vodka and not-so-bulky lasagna to simple chicken francese or an always-on-point eggplant parm wedge. Pizza is big business here, too, with the ultra-satisfying salad slice with chicken and Gorgonzola a daily sellout.
Nothing says classic Italian like a meal served family-style, and that’s how they’ve been rolling for three-decades-plus at this big, always bustling hotbed for “traditional Italian, no modern twist,” as its homepage insists. Every belly-busting dish, soup to nuts (well, not the soup), serves two or more, and a majority of menu items are slathered in tangy red sauce and luscious parm, not the least of which is the signature Kitchen Sink, comprising shrimp, sausage, prosciutto, and chicken in a tomato cream sauce with penne.
“The best chefs in the world come from Abruzzo,” says Tony DeNardis, who left a little village in the region called Spaccarelli when he was 15 and opened this northerly bastion of Central Italian cooking 34 years ago. “With my mother, in Italy, when I was 6 or 7 years old, I cooked the sauce; I made the pastas,” recalls DeNardis, who adds, “My father was a chef, but I use all of my mother’s recipes because I like the home cooking.”
DeNardis can be found in the kitchen before the doors open, making pasta and mozzarella by hand, stuffing artichokes and peppers, rolling all-veal meatballs, and mixing up ragouts of lamb, rabbit, and goat that are hard to come by this side of the Atlantic but all the rage with regulars. “I’m from the old school, and I’m proud to say it.” Once the mealtime feasting begins, DeNardis goes table to table, getting to know his diners.
The regional, pasta-inspired cuisine of Apulia and the meat-heavy leanings of Abruzzo dance a delicious tarantella in the pots of chef-owner Anna Catalano, who cooks up unassuming but hearty and wholesome Italian specialties, making most of the pasta herself. “Everything is fresh, not frozen, and it’s from scratch. That’s my style,” says Catalano, who came to America as a teen in 1970 and took over this already established neighborhood fave 15 years ago.
Ravioli, spinach lasagna Bolognese, cannelloni, and feather-light gnocchi are the carby craves among loyals, with veal saltimbocca and veal rolled with shiitake mushrooms and provolone over polenta catering to more hardcore carnivores. “There’s nothing really fancy here. It’s just a good old Italian-style place,” says Catalano, with what she calls a “family-oriented feel.”
And while she does have “help” from her family (her brother and husband are partners), “I do everything,” she says, like any proud Abruzzese woman worth her salt.
In Italian, basta means “that’s enough,” which is exactly what Roger Mason thought when he counted 11 pizza-and-pasta joints in the immediate Ossining area. If he opened up one, too, that would surely be “enough.”
After graduating from The Culinary Institute of America, Mason studied cooking in Italy (his grandmother is from Genoa) and France. Most of his customers are neighbors, or are treated as such, and those in the know can’t get enough of his carbonara pasta. “I use real egg yolk at the end, just the way you’re supposed to, and add some pasta water for flavor and to thicken the sauce.”
Mason makes the dough and mozzarella that compose his delightfully unfussy Margherita pizzas, yet for the adventurous palates that crave the pie topped with prosciutto and dried figs, one slice is never enough.
Just in case the circa 1900 former hotel building, the rustic, original bar, and the extensive menu of red sauce and cheese doesn’t conjure an image of the Old Country, owner brothers Anthony and Santino Pietrosanti covered the tables in red-checkered cloths. “We like simple, no bells and whistles,” says Anthony, who set up shop nearly 20 years ago with a Sicilian chef and a firm foundation in Italian fare from an Abruzzese mom and pop.
Today, chicken parm and linguine with white clam sauce are the soul-soothing standards, along with the equally comforting chicken Taormina, pounded thin and rolled with mozzarella and prosciutto in a mushroom-Marsala wine sauce with a touch of tomato (right).
It’s not just the Pietrosanti brothers serving up the good stuff. “We’re a family business,” says Anthony, “and we want our customers to feel like they’re one of us.”
Earning street cred as a busboy and waiter at his uncle’s restaurant, the famed Dominick’s of Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, Frank DiRende opened this welcoming, neighborhood destination for elevated Southern Italian-inspired recipes 25 years ago, and he’s been crowd-pleasing ever since. “This is the homey comfort food of the South,” says DiRende, whose parents emigrated from Calabria and give their son a hand with the biz to this day. “My mother makes the gnocchi, and we do the stuffed artichokes the way she does.”
In addition to his folks, “the staff have been with me for a long time, so they know all the customers, and we’re like a big, happy family,” he says.
Along with mom-made menu picks, linguini pescatore, with shrimp and clams in a light marinara, is always popular, and so is the veal Contadina: a double-cut chop, grilled to perfection, with sliced potatoes, bell peppers, mushrooms, and onions.
Smack-dab in the middle of a residential neighborhood, in a simple, white structure that was once his grandparents’ home, Frank Belluscio carries on his family tradition of dishing out home-cooked Italian goodness that began back in 1933. “My grandmother wanted a business, so they made the porch into a store, and she cooked for the guys in the bar they built next door,” explains Belluscio. “After a while, everyone wanted to drink less and eat more.”
Big eating continues, with Belluscio manning the burners and in charge of the family business for the past 38 years. His big sellers — lasagna made from his Calabrian grandmother’s recipe, delicate chicken or sole francese, and pizza — satisfy neighborhood souls who come for the food and stay for the cozy and casual ambience.
Adding to the homey charm, old pictures of local landmarks decorate the wood-paneled walls and pay homage to the surrounding area and the city’s first Italian restaurant.
“When your father is Silvio, you grow up in the restaurant,” says Michael DiNardo, the present-day owner of this laid-back, always busy, neighborhoody, strip-mall staple north of I-287. “Fifty-one years I’ve been here. I worked in the kitchen when I was a kid, while he cooked.” DiNardo’s dad came over from Esperia, near Rome, as a teenager, with no skills or trade, but managed to learn his way around a kitchen. “We use his recipes, and even though he doesn’t come in much anymore, he still runs everything.”
The staff are on a first-name basis with most of the customers and keep close tabs on who regularly orders a cup of hearty pasta fagioli with their pizza and who needs the fried calamari on the table alongside their creamy penne vodka. “It’s that warm environment that keeps people coming back,” believes DiNardo. “And our portions are really generous.”
Consistent traditional Italian fare, like chicken scarp, eggplant rollatini, and stuffed artichokes, stand out at this 26-year-old downtown bi-level eatery and companion pizza shop, but all of the above are often eclipsed by… The Wheel. This signature entrée (must experience, really) known as formaggio in carretta involves the swirling of spaghetti around the inside of a large, partially carved-out hemisphere of imported Parmigiano-Reggiano that’s been infused with a flame of cognac and tomato sauce.
Owner Louis DiNapoli says it’s a showstopper, for sure, but it’s the “good-quality food and good service” that really keep diners returning. Authentic brick-oven pizza (available with gluten-free crust) and lighter-than-air tiramisu likely play a role, too.
“I don’t know how they do it, but people send our pizza to Alaska, North Carolina, Delaware, and Boston,” says owner Michael Tavolilla, who is in his fourth decade at this casual, wood-paneled, down-county institution, which was founded in 1931 by his Sicilian grandfather. “One time, I got all four out-of-state orders in one day,” he recalls. “I thought I was being pranked.”
Tavolilla says he has die-hard, loyal customers in their 80s who’ve been coming their whole lives for the signature crisp, thin-crust pizza, “good-old-days portions” of ravioli with meat sauce, chicken parm, and that big bowl of house salad with impossible-
to-duplicate-at-home Italian dressing. “We keep a couple of items on the menu just because one or two old-timers order them.”
As for who picked the name Roma and why: “That’s the $64,000 question,” laughs Tavolilla.
It’s not much to look at from the street, but inside, it’s warm, cozy, and brimming with the sights and scents of quintessential Italy. Francesco Spinali, who came to the U.S. from Florence as a teenager, has been at the stove since opening for business in 1971. His son Paul Spinali, who spends some of his workday in the kitchen, says fish is a top seller, along with lasagna, baked ziti, and eggplant parm. “We sell amazing amounts of eggplant,” Paul says.
He adds that the menu has evolved over the years, based on dietary requests and cravings from regulars. There’s no trace of meat in the non-meat sauces, and “if people start asking for pineapple chicken, we’ll make pineapple chicken.”
Spinali wagers that when the restaurant is full, “I can tell you 99 percent of people’s names and what they do,” noting how he and Dad want the staff to know the customers and the customers to know each other.
The website touts a “rustic-modern eatery,” and that about sums it up at the original, always, hopping, always happy haunt that dates to 1958 and flanks a new, more serene dining space. Regardless, off-the-bone chicken scarp, with sweet, hot, or mixed peppers, served with or without sausage, is one of the reasons it’s tough to get a seat at dinnertime; the penne a la vodka, pizza, baked clams, and famous chopped salad are others. “My father created the salad dressing in the early ’60s, when he was a waiter here,” says manager Sheilagh Cirillo, whose family has run this iconic fixture in one of the city’s busiest shopping districts since 1976.
On a lower level, beneath all the sit-down action, pizza sells like hotcakes and serves as endless fodder for locals to argue over who makes the best slice in the Y-O.
At just five years old, this north-county hotspot for richly authentic Italian home cooking is a relative newcomer to the 914’s Old World Italian dining scene, but the chef’s family secrets go back a hundred years. “My father-in-law has always brought everyone together with food, and everything we make is a recipe from his Italian parents, grandparents, or great grandparents,” says Deneen Furci, co-owner with her husband and his father.
Popular dishes include buoyant, hand-crafted potato gnocchi Bolognese, meatballs with pasta, Sicilian rice balls, and a down-home-Italian take on an egg roll, which is stuffed with broccoli rabe
One glance up from the table, says Furci, and the family sentiment is apparent: “We have tons of pictures on the walls of our staff and our customers, who we talk to every night and who become part of us.” Alongside all the smiling, well-fed faces are the words: “This is us.”