While there’s no denying the nostalgia trip of dinner along Arthur Avenue or Mulberry Street, followed by pastry shopping and a sidewalk cup of espresso, many of New York City’s best Italian restaurants are located outside of Little Italy. Neighborhoods like Corona, Williamsburg, and South Ozone Park may have changed drastically since the days of $1.50 subway fare, but there are still dozens of old-school New York City Italian restaurants where the atmosphere is almost identical to what it was when the restaurants first opened – some as far back as the mid-1900s.
Many old-school New York City Italian restaurants in former Italian-American enclaves have become destination restaurants for people who left the old neighborhood (and the old country) decades ago, as well as for a new generation of people eager to explore cities like New York far from the touristy areas – especially those who enjoy dishes with ingredients and recipes that are generations old, and inspired by their original Italian roots.
Here are seven old-school New York City Italian restaurants that prove you can find some of the best seafood, pasta, and veal dishes in New York City.
New York City Italian restaurants everyone should know
Brooklyn’s oldest Italian restaurant feels a world away from the trendy Williamsburg and Greenpoint neighborhoods that surround it. New York City banned smoking in restaurants back in 2003, but this restaurant has yet to remove the cigarette machine that stands defiantly between the bar and main entrance. Like the two pay phones you’ll pass on your way to the dining room, the cigarette machine no longer works. Yet it reminds people of what NYC dining was like when subway fare was still under a dollar. The main dining room has remained pretty much unchanged since the 1950s.
Throughout the restaurant, you’ll find vintage Brooklyn Dodgers memorabilia adorning the red walls. To put things into perspective, Bamonte’s has been in business for five decades longer than their borough had a baseball team.
By the time you reach the dining room, the smell of red sauce will engulf your senses to the point where you’ll be willing to sit at the bar if there are no more tables available in the dining room. You can’t go wrong with either the seafood fra diavolo or the pork chop parmigiana. The homemade ravioli is another popular red sauce dish.
Thanks to the COVID-inspired additional outdoor seating, few hopeful diners are turned away nowadays. As the sign to the right of the dining room entrance indicates, proper attire is expected. However, the outdoor dining area is more casual.
Reservations are highly recommended. Valet parking is complimentary, but tips are encouraged.
Where: 32 Withers St, Brooklyn, NY 11211
An old-school NYC Italian restaurant like Basilio Inn could only be possible on Staten Island. Located at the end of a short residential street, the former white carriage house predates the this borough’s oldest restaurant by at least 48 years. Were it not for the faded basil-colored letters announcing Basilio Inn; you’d likely think that you turned down the wrong street. The main indoor dining room is understated, with only two large portraits of the old country and a miniature painting of the restaurant’s exterior hanging from the walls. The latter was donated by a loyal patron.
If you want to feel like you’re going to your grandparents’ house for Sunday dinner, ask for a table outside. There’s a back patio as well as deck seating, which overlooks the main garden. That’s where the majority of their fresh ingredients are grown.
Pasta dishes make up one-third of Basilio’s menu. And the majority of the pasta is made in-house. While the pappardelle with veal ragu and shrimp risotto are both mainstays, you’ll usually be offered as many as ten different specials. The stuffed zucchini blossoms are a popular seasonal item, as is the fettuccine with broccoli rabe. And if you’re on the fence about the Long Island duck breast in a fig sauce, take a look at the fig tree adjacent to the bocce court in the vegetable garden.
While reservations are not required, they are highly recommended. Basilio closes from the first Sunday in January to March 1.
Where: 6 Galesville Ct, Staten Island, NY 10305
Located in South Ozone Park, just a half-mile from the JFK long-term parking lot, Don Peppe is one of those classic, cash-only, Italian restaurants that remains the same despite changes in the neighborhood. The last remaining fine dining Italian restaurant in Ozone Park is nearly always full, despite being far from touristy Manhattan and the hipster parts of Brooklyn.
There are no paper menus. Instead, the menu is written in chalk on the large blackboard above the tables adjacent to the kitchen entrance. If it’s your first time, try anything with clams. The restaurant’s black souvenir t-shirts boast “famous for baked clams,” but the linguine with white clam sauce is just as popular. The latter comes with a pound of linguine soaked in their soup-like sauce and topped with chopped clams and whole roasted garlic cloves, the smell of which permeates the air like saltwater at a beachside clam shack.
As all dishes are meant for sharing, your server (who has likely been at Don Peppe for at least a decade) will scoop a normal dinner-sized portion onto your plate before topping it with a spoonful or two of sauce. This is how they serve everything on the menu.
After the clams, veal dishes are the most popular. In this case, your server will cut you off a large piece of veal with a spoon as if to let you know that you’re eating the most tender veal in New York. Their namesake breaded veal dish comes fried and topped with chopped tomatoes and red onions. While the Veal Don Peppe may be a bit more popular than the veal parmesan, the latter is topped with the perfect amount of red sauce.
The restaurant does not take reservations. Nor will it seat your party until everyone has arrived.
Where: 135-58 Lefferts Blvd, South Ozone Park, NY 11420
F & J Pine
Named after founders Frankie and Johnny, F & J Pine proves that not all of the best Italian restaurants in The Bronx are located along Arthur Avenue or 187th Street. What started in 1969 as a humble bar with a single dining room now takes up an entire triangle-shaped city block on the edge of Morris Park. It’s impossible to miss the red and black awning that hangs above the main entrance and valet stand along Bronxdale Avenue.
Pay special attention to the words’ family-style.’ The Yankee Stadium-sized portions are meant for sharing. Regulars are quick to suggest the zuppa di pesce, which is served in a 21×12″ bowl stacked nearly four inches high with eight different types of seafood served over a pound of linguine. Ordering this for one person will get you some curious stares. Finishing it will earn you respect among the regulars who still dine here. If you like spice, order the fra diavolo version. You can also get it with blanco or marinara sauce.
The chicken and veal parmesan are popular as well. For dessert, try the Oreo zeppole or the Nutella s’mores pizzetta. The zeppole come stuffed with the pastry chef’s version of oreo cream as well as some chocolate cookie crumbs. A scoop of vanilla ice cream comes on the side. The pizzetta is prepared in their pizza oven, from which they also prepare eight different wood-fired pies.
Reservations are highly recommended. Valet parking is complimentary, but tips are encouraged.
Where: 1913 Bronxdale Ave, The Bronx, NY 10462
The second-oldest Italian restaurant in Brooklyn is located close enough to the iconic Coney Island Boardwalk that you can smell the saltwater as you approach from West 15th Street. When you enter Gargiulo’s, you’ll see a lobster tank on the left, the bar on the right, and the 110-capacity dining room straight ahead.
The Russo family has owned Gargiulo’s since 1965. And while the restaurant is surrounded by the same cookie-cutter chain restaurants that you’ll find in most Atlantic beach towns, it remains one of two indoor destination restaurants in Coney Island. While the other (Totonno’s) is an informal yet legendary New York pizzeria, Gargiulo’s remains a traditional upscale dining experience. The impossible-to-miss sign on the door lists eight articles of clothing not permitted. By the time you’re seated, you can easily forget that most people exiting the adjacent subway station are coming to eat boardwalk food and soak up the sun.
As one may expect, given the proximity to the ocean, seafood dishes are the most popular. The fish salad, zuppa di pesce, and linguine with white clam sauce are ideal for beginners. The regulars (who make up the majority of patrons) are likely to recommend these old-school New York Italian restaurant staples as well. For something without shellfish, try their namesake pasta dish. As with many of their pasta dishes, you’ll have the option to order half or full portions. The specials change every other week.
Reservations are recommended but not required. Valet parking is complimentary, but tips are encouraged. If you’re more of a Jersey person, try their new location 50 miles south in Tinton Falls.
Where: 2911 W 15th St, Brooklyn, NY 11224
Lenny’s Clam Bar
The mile-long stretch of Cross Bay Boulevard west of the Shellbank Basin is lined with pizzerias as well as upscale Italian restaurants like Vetro, Bruno, Matteo’s, and Lenny’s Clam Bar. While you’re unlikely to have a bad meal at any of the aforementioned, Lenny’s has been there the longest.
Those hundreds of autographed pictures that line the walls here remind diners that professional athletes and entertainers don’t just eat in Manhattan. Lenny’s Clam Bar has also been a popular dining spot for professional wrestlers from Hulk Hogan to Jerry Lawler since the 1980s. And anyone who’s into local history should appreciate the small original 1974 menu on display.
The blue and white awning that covers the walkway to the main entrance resembles that of an Italian ice shop. But it’s the seafood that keeps people coming back. On the menu, you’ll see the seafood salad and baked clams referred to as the house specialties. The linguine with white clam sauce deserves that distinction as well. And so do the scungilli and fried calamari. While you can order either with marinara sauce, the sweet, medium, or hot sauces are the way to go.
You can get a free glass of wine by asking for Joe.
Where: 161-03 Cross Bay Blvd, Howard Beach, NY 11414
Located on the border between Marine Park and Sheepshead Bay, Michael’s is the definition of a neighborhood institution. Everything else near the intersection of Nostrand and Avenue R fades into the background compared to the stone facade building that dates back more than a half-century.
Michael’s started as a pizzeria in 1964. The fine dining establishment you’ll see today came a decade later. Puglia native and founder Michael Cacace’s grandson (also named Michael) is currently running the impressive operation, which includes the restaurant as well as the tomato sauce distribution center, which supplies more than 20,000 grocery stores.
While the menus may seem overwhelming at first, the staff are able to break it down with laser-sharp focus without pushing you too hard in one direction or the other. For a meat dish, try the roughly 10×5″ veal chop parmigiana, which is served on the bone. In addition to making the desserts and pasta in-house, the kitchen staff at Michael’s also do their own butchering.
The burnt rigatoni is their must-try pasta dish. As soon as it gets within six feet of your table, you’ll be able to smell the blackened mozzarella cheese which is baked into the rigatoni, which sits over a layer of vodka sauce. And then there are the items that are not on either menu that the mostly regular crowd knows to ask for. The mildly spicy hot calamari with long green hot peppers is one example. For a smaller appetizer, try the zucchini blossoms stuffed with fresh mozzarella and red peppers.
Reservations are highly recommended. Valet parking is complimentary, but tips are encouraged. And don’t leave Marine Park without checking out Michael’s Pastry Shop, which is located across Nostrand Avenue. Try the cassata.
Where: 2929 Avenue R, Brooklyn, NY 11229