Does anyone eat at Tommaso's in Bensonhurst? (It's actually now da Tommaso, since they remade the facade and added sidewalk seating, but the food and ownership are the same.) This is one of my favorite Italians in the city, for three reasons:
First, the ambiance is unbeatable. Tommaso himself, a large, smiley fatherly type, jovially greets all visitors as they walk in to the lavishly decorated bar area. (Think '80s borough Italian -- granite bar, but not too upscale; no Roman statuary or anything). Tommaso and his family run the place; he'll direct you to hand your coats to his niece with the comment, "There's my niece. She's like all second children -- wacked in the head!" The staff are unfailingly warm and welcoming, and the clientele are almost all regular Bensonhurst regulars, with one other group that I'll get to below.
You walk past an appetizing cold antipasto buffet to seat in the main dining room, where they ask if you want to see the wine list. Be sure to request the reserve wine list. This brings us to the second reason for dining at Tommaso.
The wine list is incredible. Not just incredible quality -- top-line Barolos, Barbarescos, Bordeaux and Californias from the '70s and '80s -- but at incredible prices. Tommaso is a serious wine buyer, friends with Robert M. Parker for what that's worth, who does not believe in pricing up wine after he cellars it. That means he has whole years of Bruno Giacosa from the '80s at $45 a bottle. New Giacosas start at $100 from Sherry-Lehmann, and you can't even find the older vintages. A 1982 Produttori del Barbaresco, one of the most complex, yummy, satisfying gulps of raspberry and roasted herbs I've ever tasted. (It's sold out now, but went for $35 while it lasted.)
Tommaso is not pretentious about his unbelievable treasure trove. He serves the wines in Riedel glasses lightly seasoned with a drop of wine already, yes, but he plops recommended bottles down on the table with a resounding thud and announces the low price in a satisfied voice. While browsing the list is a pleasure, you can safely put yourself in his hands and let him pick what you drink. I've had a stunning California Zinfandel and various Barolos in addition to the wine I described above. On our most recent trip, this past Saturday evening, he gave us a 1982 Chateau Branaire (where can you even find 1982 Bordeaux at any price?) and a wonderful 1988 Chateau Meyney -- though I must say, amazing though these wines were, I prefer fruitier Italian wines with his cuisine. Both were under $50, and would be in the low to middle triple digits at a typical Manhattan restuarant.
That bring us to reason #3 for eating here: the food. The hearty Italian-American fare that they do well is truly wonderful. "Sunday Special", a hearty rigatoni with sausage (available every day), a wonderful homemade lasagna with many layers and an intensely dark red sauce, some of the best osso buco in the city, running with marrow and sauce -- I only wish it came with saffron risotto instead of plain rice, a marvelous cold antipasto with white beans, roasted peppers, mushrooms, pickled vegetables (no salami or cheese here), grisolini (polenta with melted gorgonzola on top), and "potato pie a la Mama", a wonderful potato pie with melted cheese on top.
You do have be careful with the menu. Tommaso's oenophile friends have obviously gotten him to update it with new Italian specialties -- and he travels to Italy all the time to pick up wine and grappa -- but it is not what the kitchen does well. The menu used to be divided into "Italian-American" and "Italian" sections, but now they're all mixed up, and it's a little hard to figure out. Obviously ignore the veal cooked on a hot rock (very popular with Bensonhurstians); the fegato (foie gras) is not to my taste either, though they certainly give you a lot of it. A lamb-shank special which they offer often is unimpressive: if you're in the mood for shank, stick with the osso buco. Ignore, in general, the stars on the menu saying "a Tommaso favorite!" -- they apply indiscriminately to the good and the bad stuff.
Portions are very, very large.
During and after dinner the room can get very partylike, with the tables of potential former and future mobsters getting attacked by a short woman in her 50s who serenades them with love songs in a loud vibrato, accompanied by an old guy on an upright piano. This sounds like it could be annoying, but it is insanely funny and weird. She rarely sings for more than 3 minutes at a time. Then Tommaso himself will go up to the piano and do an opera aria or two -- he has a surprisingly good voice.
If you've bonded with Tom over the wine (he'll come over and bring you suggestion after suggestion, in whatever price range -- and the ones under $20 are still astonishing wines), he might even sit down and join you. On this visit, we did the reverse and went to sit with him at his outpost next to the bar. He served us with an amazingly delicate and austere Levi grappa ("never comes into this country -- I got it from the maker personally when I was in Piemonte") and chatted about how he got his start in the restaurant business. Seems he worked as a waiter at "21" back in the '50s and '60s, and started up Tommaso's at a different location in Bensonhurst 27 years ago, over an all-night bagel factory. (Great bagels, apparently.) We asked him if he needed more business from Manhattan or elsewhere in New York, and he said, "How you going to do that? The Internet?"
This post is definitely an attempt to get more people to go to Tom's. The older Bensonhurst Italian crowd is dying out or moving away, and not so many young people are going to Tom's. This is the kind of the restaurant that if it were in Manhattan or Cobble Hill would be packed night after night, and Tom deserves it. So do you. The prices we pay for wine in this city are out of control. Why go to any of a million Manhattan steakhouses, Italian and French restaurants and pay $250 a bottle for top-flight wine when you could get the same bottle for $30-40 at Tom's? in fact, what most of us end up doing is getting the "low-end" $40 bottle at the Manhattan places, which is probably a Ruffino Ducale, Villa Antinori, Chateau Greysac, Ravenswood Zin or whatever.... all worthy wines, all good with food, but nothing compared to the series life-changing revelations available at the same price in Bensonhurst.
You have to take a car service or cab if you're coming from Manhattan, or spend a long time on the subway. Usually comes to a $20 cab ride, not bad if you split it between 4 people. Those of you with cars or in Brooklyn are luckier, though you'd better have a designated driver.
Call ahead to make sure that (1) Tom is there (his staff are very nice but can't recommend wine and don't necessarily know where to find a lot of it in the cellar) and (2) you go early -- like 6:30 or 7, because if there aren't enough customers there, Tom gets depressed and goes home early. A large group is cool, to taste a bunch of wines, and then hang out at the bar and go through the insane grappa collection.
I can't recommend Tommaso's enough. One of the warmest, coolest, tastiest places in New York. Always an event to dine there. And it needs help to stay alive.
P.S. This Saturday $80-$100 each with cocktails, 2 bottles of wine at $45 and $50 for four people, an appetizer and a main course each, coffee, and the Levi grappa. You can get it down to $50 each with no trouble.
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