Last night I went with five people to Il Vesuvio in Baysideall of us members of an Italian conversation group that meets once a week to speak Italian and, hopefully, eat Italian food that is wonderful and inexpensive (like Italian food should be, but, for some strange reason, almost never is in New York).
But this place breaks all the NYC rules! All we can say is: Grazie! Grazie! Grazie! to Jim. (And three Grazie!s to Allan Evans, as well.) I didnt think it was even possible to find this kind of food in New York. Two members of the group are Italians, and they were just as amazed as the rest of us. Jim/Allan: how in the world did you ever find this place? Its just about the most standard and nondescript pizza/grinders joint you could imagine. It blends in seamlessly and looks like its been there forever.
But no. Just over a year ago the place was a deli that went out of business. Along came Nicola, the owner, in America for five years, and his brother Massimo: two guys in their twenties from a town called Nocera, near Salerno. They gutted the place themselves (we received a brief explanation of the family background in construction, which I didnt completely follow, since it was in rapid-fire, strangely/beautifully accented Southern Italian) and turned it into what it is now: a deep, narrow room with a long glass pizza counter, a few built in, utilitarian tables with plastic benches, a scattering of regular tables, super-bright lights, and a lot of wood paneling. The place basically is Big Night, transported to the year 2001, with harsh lighting, and Nicola and Massimo doing the charismatic brother, quiet brother routine.
And instead of being empty the place is a huge hit.
The only nights both brothers arent both in the kitchen are Wednesday and Mondaywe only got to meet Massimo (who has Wednesdays off) because he dropped in to say hello. Everyone else working in the kitchen is (to quote Nicola) Spanish. All the Spanish guys can make pasta now. They have learned. The waiter Jim had on his five (consecutive?) visits may have been one of their uncles. There are frequent visits by family, which seem to be opportunities for supplementing the menu and staff. An aunt recently brought Sicilian lemons (Nicola moved his hands about a foot apart to convey the size of a Sicilian lemon) and home made salami. To describe how she carried the salami he said What are those tubes called, you know, the tubes with the potato chips? Us: Pringles? Nicola: Yes! Pringles! She puts them in the Pringles cans.
Nicola is passionate, and everything Jim observed in his cooking is absolutely right. He told us that a lot of stuff on the menu was Italian American, because thats what people want. But he really enjoyed making specials. Hes got a regular clientele of people who call a day ahead for him to make stuff. Hes particularly excited about whole fish entrees and seafood salad. Of the salad he said: Its not something you can do every night. It takes a lot of work. I use Portuguese octopus. Portuguese octopus is the best. Even frozen, its soft, tender. People who dont think they like Octopus try this and suddenly like octopus. Dress it with a little lemon and olive oil. Just lemon and olive oil. Thats all you need.
At one point he got going on cheese: You see all these cheese places in America, and they have no Italian cheeses. Why? There are so many Italian cheeses. Then came a long, twenty, thirty, forty cheese list.
We ordered a special salad with cherry tomatoes and mozzarella, and the tricolore salad. Both were delicious. Everything light and fresh and simple and perfectly balanced. (Nicola is definitely a salad man. He told us that he was never going to change his salad style to suit American tastes.) Then calamari: non-oily, fresh, wonderful. The pastas were enormous. We had four portions for six people and were overwhelmed. Go here with an appetite. Our four were: penne alla vodka, rigatoni Vesuvio (with eggplant), a penne special with chicken, olives and smoked mozzarella (incredible), and rigatoni with sausage and peas. The sauces were delicious, perfectly melded, earthy, comforting. Though Spanish guys must have been plunging the pasta: not quite al dente. Wednesday.
I came home and wrote some incomprehensible version of the above still tipsy Nicolas uncles home made limoncello. The stuff was thick and tart and not-too-sweet. It made you feel warm in a just-back-from-drinking-at-the-beach way. That and a real espresso (Not all watery! exclaimed one of the Italians in our group) and then back on the LIRR.
Nicola gave us cards that say Corporate Account Available; Catering For All Occasions.
How to form a corporation?