Best Bites with Robin Goldstein: Old-school Italian-American close to home

  • The eggplant parm with cavatappi at Roberto’s in Northampton. ROBIN GOLDSTEIN

  • Antipasto at Roberto’s in Northampton. ROBIN GOLDSTEIN

Published: 7/1/2022 7:55:02 PM

Everyone who writes about food has their own peculiar biases. You can’t avoid them. The best you can do is acknowledge them.

I’ll name three of mine. First, I’m a sucker for nostalgia. I love places that have been around for a while, that I’ve been going to with my family since I was a kid. It’s really hard to run a successful restaurant business for a year, but it’s practically impossible to survive for four decades. I’m in awe of the rare places that have managed to pull that off.

Second, I think most latter-day food writing over-focuses on avant-garde restaurants whose chefs invent new recipes every week. I respect culinary creativity, but too often overlooked are the chefs that simply make the most delicious possible versions of traditional local recipes we already know and love.

My third bias is toward affordable restaurants. It’s great to use only the most local, sustainable, farm-to-table ingredients. But the high costs of those ingredients get passed on to customers in the form of $30 mains. The restaurants that choose, instead, to be more economical and accessible to a broader portion of the local community deserve equal respect.

Italian food is a complicated thing to talk about. I lived in Italy, and the food there is almost nothing like the Italian food I grew up with. My grandparents, Nonnie and Granddad, raised my mom and me with their own unique versions of classic Italian-American recipes. Most Italians would scoff at lasagna without ground meat, but Nonnie was raised by her mother (who I called “Ma”) as a vegetarian, so her two greatest specialties as a cook — eggplant parmigiana and cheese lasagna — were veg dishes. Nonnie’s cooking was 200% good because it was 100% Italian and 100% American.

The red-sauce Italian culture and flavor palate first arose in the 1930s in the New Haven area. We’re close enough to the birthplace of Italian-American to have a wealth of OG spots. In a later column I’ll cover upscale Italian restaurants, or what I call “Italian-American 2.0” cuisine. It wouldn’t be fair to cram these two categories into one column.

So this is Italian-American 1.0: the red-sauce spaghetti-and-meatballs-and-melted-cheese deliciousness that you, like everyone else in America, have been obsessed with since your early childhood.

Joe’s

In a rich field of competitors, the conversation must first begin with Joe’s, my favorite restaurant in Northampton and possibly the world.

Walk into Joe’s, and you travel back in time. The place opened in 1938 — can you imagine Northampton in 1938? — and it feels like not much has changed since then, beginning with the wonderful sombrero sign outside. The walls are lined with throwback Tex-Mex murals and a multi-room collage of local sports memorabilia. Fiery red-and-white tablecloths evoke Sinatra. All of this is gently illuminated by lighting that’s just right.

But what takes Joe’s to the next level is the awesomeness of the staff and the crowd of regulars, some of whom have probably been hanging out here for 50 years. Even on the quietest night, Joe’s is aflame with the human spirit. The bar side of the restaurant is the best place in town to gather with strangers for a diabolical all-night analysis of the Red Sox pitching staff.

Even amid all this excitement, you’ll be distracted by the gigantic meatballs. The meal-sized meatball casserole appetizer, a steal at $8.99, puts two of these wonderful plump spheres of savory satisfaction into a baking dish, smothered with a deep, well-seasoned red sauce and a generous melt of mozzarella. Sausage casserole, substituting juicy Italian sausage for the meatballs, is just as delicious and plentiful.

Joe’s menu is relentlessly traditional. The pan-seared mushroom salad might be the only give-away that you’re in the 21st century. Generously cheesed sausage pizza and even cheesier garlic bread are two of the purest and most indulgent of all comfort foods. Eggplant parmesan is thickly battered and fried to ideal crispiness. On the lighter side, a meal-sized Italian salad bowl hits the spot; lemon chicken in white wine sauce is tender and addictive; and Spanish clams in an eminently soppable broth is a dark-horse winner. The entry-level Chianti is one of the best-value bottles of wine in town. I could go on, but I’ll run out of space. Just go to Joe’s on Market Street and see for yourself.

Roberto’s

The saddest thing that’s happened to the Northampton restaurant scene since I started writing for the Gazette in April was the May closure of Sylvester’s, which I recommended in my first column ever. The good news, though, is that the owners of Sylvester’s also run Roberto’s, just a bit further down King Street in Northampton, so not all of the greatness is lost. It’s just re-focused. If you were a Sylvester’s lover, like I was, you can still support the family.

Roberto’s is a baby by Joe’s standards but a local stalwart by any other, founded in the 1960s. The place is simple and folksy inside, with a balanced bustle of activity that puts you in the mood. They’re good at accommodating big groups. Roberto’s is also a sleeper hit for outdoor dining: you can sit out on a gracious patio next to the big old house and watch some hipsters across the street sell outrageous vintage clothes. They might even sing or rap.

The antipasto is a necessary way to start. It’s a generous spread, a massively tricked-out Italian-dressed salad with marinated mushrooms, ham, cheese, nice acidic peperoncini, and pepperoni delightfully fried to a chip-like crispness.

Thin-crust pizza and cheesy garlic bread are two more eternal favorites here. They’re both in the greasy, pile-it-on school of culinary art in American pizza and garlic bread, an art that began to flower in the Northeastern U.S. right around the time of Roberto’s birth in the 1960s.

But the best thing on the menu is what Nonnie would order every time: eggplant parmigiana, crispy outside and melty inside and absolutely addictive. Most mains come with a choice of pasta. Cavatappi (squiggly, mac-and-cheese-like noodles) are the best by far.

Ravioli is another strength of the kitchen: butternut squash ravioli comes lusciously sauced and generously layered with grated cheese, while buffalo chicken ravioli is stuffed with minced chicken and served with blue cheese. These are hardly 1960s dishes, but they too may live long lives.

Nini’s

Nini’s, in downtown Easthampton, was born in 1977, a year after I was, and like me, it’s pretty far on the American end of Italian-American. There’s chop-chop salad, crispy fried mozzarella carved into lovely wedge shapes, and rich gorgonzola fondue; veal cutlets delicately battered with egg as picatta, or with bread crumbs as crispy parmigiana; and baked ricotta-stuffed shells with red sauce, my all-time childhood favorite. Eggplant parmigiana, my primary obsession in this article, is also just what it should be.

The interior is dark and inviting, with fun colorful murals and warm lighting and cozy booths. Even the front entrance is old-time charming. It’s the ultimate crowd-pleaser for the old and the young, and even the impossible-to-please adolescents. This is where I went to my high school prom dinner.

Actually, to be more precise, it was an anti-prom dinner, organized by the kids who were too cool for school and didn’t want to go to the real prom with the teeny-boppers. This was a big relief for me, because I didn’t have a prom date anyway, and at the anti-prom it was acceptable to go in groups.

It was the first time I’d ever worn a sports jacket without my family in the room, and I was lucky to have a whole group of friends all ready to help me wipe the Nini’s red sauce off various parts of my bright white Bradlees dress shirt.

An unscientific study of social food media reveals that the thing people rave about most at Nini’s is the desserts. Reviewing desserts is my greatest weakness as a food writer, because I’ve already eaten too much of everything by that point. But I can still remember the cake at Nini’s after prom.

Cicero, in 45 BCE, was the first to utter the great proverb — later adopted by Miguel de Cervantes — that hunger is the best sauce. When people rave about what they eat when they’re already stuffed, that’s really saying something.

Many other great places

The short list for this column was long. There are probably 10 other places in the area where I’d confidently send someone for old-school Italian-American. Three of them are particularly notable for their gargantuan-portion-to-reasonable price ratios, and I want to leave you with their names, too:

Florence Pizza, Florence. An oldie with an bendy glass atrium that screams 1980s. The cheese-dominated pizza is greasy in the mold of Roberto’s but with a thicker crust. The apps are good and the beer is cold.

Pizza Amore, Northampton. This is just a college-student counter place inside, but Pizza Amore is great for takeout, with excellent-value eggplant-parm grinders and an enormous plate of spaghetti or ziti with sausage that could feed dinner to at least three people with normal-sized appetites.

Pasta e Basta, Amherst. When my grandparents went out to eat on their own, this was the place, every single time for at least a decade. They appreciated good Italian food, sure, but they liked it all over the place. They weren’t that picky.

Nonnie and Granddad had lived through the Depression, so above all they knew how to save and really cared about not wasting food.

At Pasta e Basta, they would split a single order of reasonably priced eggplant parm and add the optional bowl of pasta for an extra few bucks. They would still leave with plenty of leftovers, including all of the uneaten dinner rolls that Nonnie had stuffed into her purse, which instead of going to waste, would be treated with every bit of the reverence that our daily bread deserves.

Robin Goldstein is the author of “The Menu: Restaurant Guide to Northampton, Amherst, and the Five-College Area.” He serves remotely on the agricultural economics faculty of the University of California, Davis. He can be reached at rgoldstein@ucdavis.edu.

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