Italian restaurants on Long Island From 1920 to today

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Italian-American cuisine is Long Island’s favorite. From eggplant Parmigiana and “Sunday sauce” with meatballs to limitless varieties of lasagna and pastas with seafood, it’s the cooking that counts in almost every community between Great Neck and Montauk, Elmont and Orient.

Explore how Italian food came to define dining in Nassau and Suffolk, from the 1920s to this decade, with a combination of history and personal stories, focusing on the restaurants that are an essential part of the Italian-American experience on LI. Join us at the table.

From Italy to America

Four million Italians came to the United States from 1880 to 1920. That’s more than the current population of Milan and Rome — combined.

And about 80 percent migrated from the hard land south of Rome, Campania to Calabria, the city of Naples to the island of Sicily. They left provinces ravaged by deep poverty and high taxes, joblessness and overpopulation, disease and natural disasters.

At first, men made the voyage, as the first Italians did with explorers and missionaries 500 years ago. The new immigrants began to find work as migrant laborers, building roads, digging tunnels, cutting stone, setting train tracks, toiling in sand pits and on farms. Some returned to Italy. Some sent money back. And some abandoned those left behind.

But countless others would call together families, reunite, and seek new lives in “La Merica.” While men worked in construction, many women became seamstresses in sweatshops in Manhattan and Brooklyn. A third of the 146 victims in the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire were young immigrant Italian women.

Today, “one in four Long Islanders has Italian ancestry,” said Salvatore J. LaGumina, emeritus professor of history at Nassau Community College, and author of three books on Long Island’s Italian-Americans.

Italian immigrants settled in big cities in neighborhoods from East Harlem and Belmont to Bushwick, labored at very low wages, and faced other hardships. A turn-of-the-century advertisement for property in Woodhaven ended with “Italians Excluded.”

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But LaGumina said, they were resolved to overcome it, to find even the smallest plot of land for themselves. And many Italian immigrants would move “increasingly to the suburbs, in Nassau and Suffolk.” That meant Port Washington, Westbury, Oyster Bay and Glen Cove, as well as Patchogue, Bellport and Copiague. “The suburbs had industries that provided work,” he said, and that led to emerging Little Italys east of “the city.”

The Italian population of Glen Cove was about 24 in 1900; 1,163 in 1915. It was in Glen Cove that Frank and Concetta Stango, who had emigrated from the town of Sturno in Campania and would meet in Brooklyn, settled in 1914.

Stango’s closed in 2015, after an approximately 96-year run.

In the early days, “they started by feeding lunch to workers,” mainly unmarried immigrant men who labored in “Gold Coast mansions,” and lived in boardinghouses in The Orchard, the city’s seven-square block Italian neighborhood, said their grandson John Cocchiola. They didn’t cook and went to Stango’s. There were no menus. “It was whatever she was cooking.

“At the time, there wasn’t a lot of Italian food around here,” Cocchiola said. “It was a real novelty.” Restaurants were rare, too. The result: a big takeout business, as laborers also brought soups, stews, and pastas in pots back to the estates where they were landscapers, gardeners and construction workers. Years later, Cocchiola said, “We were the first place east of Brooklyn that had pizza.”

Nine years after Stango’s arrived, New York City restaurateur M.L. Basso opened his Casa Basso in Westhampton. It’s still cooking, under Bejto Bracovic, who emigrated from Montenegro, and began working there in 1972. He said Italian-American creations such as veal Parmigiana and spaghetti with meatballs were popular at Casa Basso in the 1920s.

Veal Parmigiana, with mozzarella, is distinctly Italian-American. If you order veal Parmigiana in Parma, Italy, the cheese will be grated Parmigiano-Reggiano; in areas south of Rome, Pecorino Romano. Mozzarella in Campania means mozzarella di bufala, from the milk of the water buffalo; in the United States, it’s pasteurized cow’s milk.

The “Parm” is among the popular adaptations Italians made in America, using the abundance of ingredients to invent a new, hybrid cuisine from a traditionally frugal one. The chefs of the early decades were locavores before the term existed.

It’s why, for example, Bolognese sauce includes lots of tomato, a generous amount of chopped meat, and is tossed with dry pasta. In Bologna, the pasta is likely to be fresh tagliatelle; the sauce, a meaty ragù that may be tinted with tomato, but not overwhelmed by it.

In Italy, scampi is a shellfish, with a flavor near that of lobster. It’s found primarily near Venice. And scampi not a style of cooking with garlic, butter and white wine, though “shrimp scampi” in a menu staple.

Lasagna alla Bolognese at the source will be made with spinach pasta, layered with a meat ragù, béchamel, and Parmesan cheese before it’s gratinéed. The original leaves out ricotta and mozzarella, tiny meatballs and crumbled sausage.

“Food is a symbol of Italian identity,” according to LaGumina. So much so, that, in Italian, a fine person would be called “buono come il pane” — as good as bread. And the immigrants understood that the actual recipes and memories they’d brought from the Old Country could be adapted in the new.

“Everything changes,” Bracovic said.

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How Borrelli's set the table

Borrelli’s opened in East Meadow before the Meadowbrook Parkway did. It was 1955, the Baby Boom was under way, suburbia was growing and, as Frank Borrelli recalls, his father and two uncles took over a small seafood house. “Dad and his brothers were chef, cook and waiter.”

He added, “Back then, veal Parmigiana was $1.50. Shrimp cocktail was 50 cents . . . and there was no chicken Parm. Penne alla vodka wasn’t around either. It was about lasagna, manicotti, baked ziti . . . And we still have them all on the menu.

“Over the years, some of the clientele come and go or move out. People who haven’t been here in 10, 20 years come back, now with their kids, and the new families want a real taste of the past. People come back for reunions.”

For a 60th birthday special, Borrelli’s rolled back prices:. Spaghetti marinara: 80 cents. Eggplant Parmigiana: 90 cents. Ravioli and manicotti: $1.

Countless menus on Long Island reflect the staying power of the mainstays at Borrelli’s. But in the early 1960s, the big appetite for the Italian-American restaurant was slowly starting to change and to expand the tomato-based fundamentals.

Ciro Gentile, whose family had a restaurant in Sicily, and Renzo Pedrazzi of Emilia-Romagna, who started as a busboy at 17 at an Italian spot in Manhattan, opened Villa Ciro in Bayville in 1961. Both were veterans of the elegant, long-gone Quo Vadis on East 63rd Street in Manhattan.

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“At the time, there were not a lot of Italian restaurants around here,” Pedrazzi said. Theirs succeeded an informal spot called Marafioti’s on Bayville Avenue.

“We started with southern Italian, mostly mom-and-pop dishes,” Gentile said. As Pedrazzi recalls it, “All meatballs, eggplant Parmigiana, chicken alla cacciatora.” The two decided to expand the repertoire.

The result: the Italian-continental restaurant would take shape on Long Island and influence dining out for more than two decades.

Suddenly, minestrone was competing with onion soup gratinée, veal Parmigiana with chateaubriand for two with Béarnaise sauce, shrimp fra diavolo with Dover sole amandine. Frogs’ legs, a specialty at Quo Vadis, reached Bayville at $5. Villa Ciro drew diners from Centre Island, Oyster Bay and Locust Valley.

“But we were in for a shock . . . in the end, there was not enough business. Fettuccine Alfredo sold well. Bolognese sauce, too. Blanquette de veal, veal stew . . . We tried to do a seafood crepe and they didn’t go for it.”

The 1961 menu at Villa Ciro in Bayville.

Renzo Pedrazzi/ Marisol Diaz

Pedrazzi went on to be co-owner of the departed La Marmite, a continental classic in Williston Park. And he’d return frequently to his native Parma. Gentile moved to Florida and became owner-manager-maitre d’ of Gianni’s, an Italian-American restaurant in Pompano Beach.

Mario Ghini, born in Bologna, also settled in Florida, as an owner of Limoncello Italian Grill in North Palm Beach. Earlier, he ran Delfino in Jupiter.

The influential restaurateur brought the stylish Pappagallo to Glen Head in the late 1960s, expanded it twice over 25 years, and spawned a network of chef-owners of Italian-continental dining rooms in Nassau that lasted to this decade. He also made a destination of Capriccio in Jericho, where fettuccine Alfredo vied with linguine and clam sauce.

“Change happens gradually, not all at once. Osso buco was popular in Italy, but not immediately on Long Island. I had a tough time selling it,” he recalled. “The big thing was veal “capricciosa,’ scaloppine piccata with lemon sauce, a slice of prosciutto, Swiss cheese. When I began, it was veal Mediterraneo with mushroom sauce and covered with Swiss cheese. What did become very popular was chicken Pappagallo,” French-cut, sauteed in a sweet-tart sauce with green grapes.

“The Italian kitchen is not a specific recipe. Italian food makes a very versatile cuisine. And customers started to enjoy Italian cooking a little more, for the tortellini, for lasagna, for fettuccine with meat sauce,” according to Ghini.

“For me, it was to give to people whatever they liked . . . in Florida, tortellini, no. Once in a while somebody likes pasta alla carbonara. But they love lobster ravioli.”

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When tastes shifted

Soon after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, Lello Arpaia landed in the Five Towns on Long Island.

“There were a few Italian restaurants around, but not always up to par,” he remembered. When Arpaia opened La Tavernetta in Woodmere in 1970, “There was a lot of fettuccine Alfredo, a lot of filet mignon with Cognac” ignited tableside.

And La Tavernetta offered fettuccine Alfredo on its first menu, too. But diners also would find meat-filled cannelloni and tortellini alla panna, trenette with pesto, and saltimbocca.

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His new dining room on Broadway aimed to make changes, inroads in a region where the hybrid French-Italian style that fell under the generic “continental” label was the definition of local haute cuisine.

La Tavernetta was among a small group of restaurants that moved toward that goal, though gingerly and mindful of gradually shifting tastes. Minestrone and stracciatella alla Romana, each $1, were on the original menu alongside chilled French soups such as vichyssoise and marilene, which went for 90 cents. The steak alla pizzaiola was balanced by steak “Diana,” each $7.50.

“It was a mixture,” said Arpaia, who arrived in the United States as an exchange student in 1960. Reflecting on the early days of La Tavernetta, and current trends as well, he said restaurants as a practical matter “have to cater to the taste of the population.”

In the 1970s, tastes did begin to shift. In the immediate postwar decades, most meals still were eaten at home. Even going to a place specializing in pizza often meant table seating and a knife-and-fork experience.

But in the new decade, dining out was becoming part of the lifestyle. And on Long Island, with appetites whetted more by travel, what diners demanded and expected was more ambitious and more authentic.

“Years ago, the American people were not going often to Italy,” said Giulio Donatich, who has contributed his first name and almost five decades to Giulio Cesare, the Westbury landmark. “But they traveled and got more experience. . . . They got to know and appreciate the cuisine.”

Donatich opened the restaurant with partner Cesare Dundara. He’d been a maitre d’ at one of New York’s grand, pioneering Italian dining rooms, Romeo Salta on West 56th Street, which spurred the growth of northern Italian cuisine in the city from 1953 to 1994.

“I brought many dishes with me from New York City,” Donatich said, including, at first, pasta alla carbonara, pasta alla Bolognese, paglia e fieno with green and white noodles, and osso buco. Later came the defining ’70s pasta, pasta primavera with vegetables.

“We still make gnocchi every day with a Bolognese brown meat sauce” that simmers three hours, Donatich said. “We did a lot of cooking in the dining room, and we still do.” Typical specials today might be red snapper Livornese and sauteed soft-shell crabs.

Donatich noted that he still sees customers he has known since the 1950s at the Ellison Avenue establishment. “We were making anything they wanted. And we have chicken Parmigiana on the menu, too,” he said. “Eggplant Parmigiana only on request.”

At Mamma Lombardi’s in Holbrook, it remains a staple. The Lombardi family came to the United States in 1968 from Avellino, south of Naples: mother, father and children, 16 years to 6 months old.

“We were glad to be here,” said Guy Lombardi, then the 16-year-old. “We all went out and started finding jobs. I was working in a pork store as a butcher, my brother John was making pizzas.” A few years later, “at the family table on Sunday, we decided, why not get together to start a pizzeria. … We had $900 in 1975 and needed $13,000.”

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Michelina Lombardi is the Mamma Lombardi.

Almost 50 years ago, Signora Lombardi and her family arrived on Long Island from Campania. Using borrowed money, they came up with the $13,000 needed to open a pizzeria. But “Mamma’s” would be much more, even then.

In 1976, it was “Mamma Lombardi’s Pizzeria & Restaurant,” where “Mamma does the cooking.” The goal: “good home style cooking . . . in our Italian decor dining room.” The grand opening special was a free glass of wine.

In addition to Mamma Lombardi’s, the family’s local businesses take in the adjoining pizzeria, a catering facility, restaurants in Port Jefferson and Patchogue, two markets, a gelateria, and a line of “all-natural sauces.”

And Michelina Lombardi, 87, comes to the restaurant named for her several days a week. “She oversees everything,” Guy Lombardi said. “She keeps everything together. And if any of us shows up late, she asks why.”

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Mamma Lombardi’s represents the enduring popularity of homey Italian-American cooking, and preceded a rush of “pastaterias,” with pizzas up front and informal dining rooms in the back.

But the mid-1970s and the 1980s on Long Island were even more a time for high-style, high-end Italian-inspired restaurants, many borne on the first wave of extra-virgin olive oil, some spurred by the expansion of Federal Express and DHL, allowing restaurateurs to obtain fresh ingredients from faraway sources within 24 hours. All this, and in 1989, prosciutto di Parma was approved for import and reintroduced to the United States.

Eleven years earlier, La Pace in Glen Cove unveiled an opulent, handsome dining room with exceptional Italian and eclectic fare. La Primavera showcased Italian-continental dishes and a new look in East Hills in 1980, the same year that the more traditional La Bussola opened in Glen Cove.

Benny’s Ristorante became a destination in Westbury; La Capannina in Northport; La Cisterna in Mineola. Due Torri, whose owners had the Italian Landmark in Copiague, would bring a new star to Hauppauge.

Northern Italian L’Orsa Minore and its Italian-inspired successor Nick & Toni’s sparked the 1980s in East Hampton. Sapore di Mare brought coastal cuisine and city cachet to Wainscott. And Casa Rustica started immediately as a four-star restaurant as Hurricane Gloria closed in.

“Italian food had come a long way,” said Elio Sobrero, the veteran chef who started La Primavera. “People traveled and discovered Italy wasn’t only pizza and mandolins.” Sobrero now is a partner in Tiramisu restaurant in Tequesta, Florida.

Angelo Ventrella, who owned La Pace, also became a Floridian. He had worked at Capriccio in Jericho and Pappagallo in Glen Head. “We imported many items,” he noted. “We were making pastas from fusilli to ricotta gnocchi and scapi at La Pace. But the cuisine was not north, south or central.”

Diners at the four-star restaurant also remember Ventrella’s great, rich chocolate mousse. “I would go from table to table with a bowl of it to give something extra” to diners who’d already ordered desserts. La Pace was open for 27 years.

“We put pride in whatever we served,” said Ventrella, a native of Bari. “We wanted to make it in this beautiful country.”

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A new approach

The 1990s brought Long Island the “Mediterranean diet.” The healthful approach promoted all kinds of greens, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, herbs, spices, nuts, moderation with red meat and the elevation of olive oil. Italian food was at the top of the pyramid.

Of course, in Italy, that pyramid was built long ago. Many grandparents of Italian-Americans already had a special affection for escarole cooked with olive oil, as well as a fondness for figs and grapes, lemons and oranges, beans and nuts.

The Mediterranean staples became trends here about six decades after Franco-American Spaghetti and Chef Boyardee debuted in cans, and almost five since the marketing of Kraft Parmesan Grated Cheese. And it was almost 20 years since Chez Panisse jump-started “California cuisine,” with its emphasis on locally sourced and sustainably grown ingredients.

Rivers of extra-virgin olive oil flowed, sometimes displacing butter next to the bread basket. And, all of a sudden, there were infinite uses for a condiment that had been around since the Middle Ages: balsamic vinegar.

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Commercial-grade balsamic vinegar, occasionally colored with caramel and sweetened with brown sugar, would end up in salad dressings, reductions, marinades, glazes, cocktails and whatever else a trend-conscious kitchen could find.

The concentrated, complex very expensive real thing might make a cameo appearance, with droplets on pieces of Parmesan cheese or on berries.

“People’s tastes change,” said Giorgio Meriggi, who opened the Italian-continental Navona in Great Neck in 1992 and Stresa in Manhasset four years later. “The cuisine has changed a lot, too.” Navona closed. But the cooking at Stresa continues to reflect classic Italian dishes — and, Meriggi added, “a little bit of everything, too.” Stresa is known for preparing almost anything a guest requests. That includes soufflés.

Arturo’s in Floral Park, in business since 1961, has evolved over the decades. Antonio D’Anna, who has owned it for more than 30 years, said, “Eating is different now, lighter. . . . We do a lot of branzino. And people order wine by the glass instead of the bottle.”

But, he said, “Osso buco still is a big seller. So is risotto frutti di mare,” the northern Italian specialty, this one made with seafood. Spins on vodka sauce, which by 2015 had taken in pizzas as well as pastas, also are popular. D’Anna’s “rigatoni Arturo” flambés diced, smoked salmon and onions in a pink vodka sauce; and diced ham and onions are flambéed with Cognac in a pink sauce for penne.

In addition to the adjustments made at formal restaurants, the 1990s and 2000s have witnessed a rise in contemporary, more casual Italian kitchens, with the emergence of trattorias, cafes and wine bars on Long Island.

Locally, Basilico in Southampton lightened and refreshed traditional fare, sending out grilled fish, shiny under a basil vinaigrette; and spaghetti with Dungeness crab. Nearby, the Sfuzzi chain made a brief appearance with individual pizzas and T-shirts emblazoned with the company logo. And the veteran Balzarini’s was serving tagliatelle sauced with Gorgonzola cheese and walnuts. Il Giardino in Commack prepared seared tuna steak with a balsamic-vinegar sauce. They’re gone now. So is the more modern, market-driven Luigi Q of Hicksville, destroyed by a fire earlier this year.

Novità continues to combine wine bar and trattoria in Garden City, as it has since 2006. More than 100 wines are available by the glass. Panini, or toasted sandwiches, sell briskly. But the hybrid establishment also has plates of cured meats and cheeses; Margherita, burrata and speck pizzas; plus black linguine with charred octopus.

The last dozen years have seen restaurant groups that originated in Manhattan expanding nationwide, including adding branches in Nassau or Suffolk. They include high-profile, high-end establishments such as Il Mulino, which opened a branch in Roslyn in 2004; and, in 2015, Scarpetta Beach at Gurney’s Montauk Resort & Saltwater Spa.

And New American cuisine, which is a colorful fusion of Californian with European and Asian for a deep melting pot, has influenced chefs who create their fare in the kitchens of Italian restaurants.

“I think Italian cuisine now definitely has a bit of New American in it,” said Eric Lomando, whose restaurants include Orto in Miller Place and Kitchen A Bistro in St. James.

A recent menu at Orto included lasagna Bolognese and eggplant Parmigiana, but also beet gnocchi with poppy-seed brown butter and goat-cheese crema; duck liver mousse with orange mostarda; and striped bass with cauliflower puree, heirloom cabbage, and pancetta.

Lomando said, “New American cuisine also stems from an Italian idea of market-driven and more seasonal food . . . You could look at an Italian menu and tell what season it is.”

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A global, fresh future

Chef-driven restaurants. Reborn and improved Italian-American classics. The search for the authentic. Exploring the new. And steady accounts with Federal Express and local producers.

The future of Italian cuisine on Long Island is going to go beyond the latest bruschetta topping and the newest use for mozzarella, another meatball “throwdown” and the abuse of the word Tuscan.

“You can get everything you want now,” said Steven Gallagher, chef-owner of The Trattoria in St. James.

Until the last two decades, finding many ingredients was about as simple as coming up with white truffles on Jones Beach. But remember that the tomato, reflexively associated with Italian food, migrated to Europe from the Americas in the 16th century. Aztecs used it before Neapolitans did. Olive oil, which used to be the pale, bland sort typically found in gallon tins, is here in varieties from Sicily, Tuscany, Liguria, Puglia, Umbria and other regions. Regulars at markets such as the branches of Iavarone Bros. and Uncle Giuseppe’s, and Razzano of Glen Cove and Grace’s Marketplace in Greenvale, find plenty.

Chef Gallagher can obtain what he needs within 24 hours or 100 miles, from purveyors abroad or on Long Island. And both he and other chefs also are increasingly making their own products. At The Trattoria, it means ricotta made in-house, just as the vegetables are pickled there; that the menu can include truffle-printed stracci pasta with mushroom brodo; ‘nduja spicy sausage with broccoli rabe pesto; and chicken liver mousse with plum agrodolce.

“They’re Italian recipes,” he said, “and I just like to put a spin on stuff. I like to go on a whim. . . . People are more open now to try new things.” Gallagher makes updated and full-flavored eggplant Parmigiana and lasagna Bolognese, spaghetti all’Amatriciana and bucatini alla carbonara. “You want to make food that people will enjoy. We’ll use different spices and ingredients not necessarily rooted in Italian cuisine.”

At Caci North Fork in Southold, co-owner Daniele Cacioppo said the objective is food that’s “simple, pure, authentic and as fresh as possible.” The restaurant’s key import: chef Marco Pellegrini. Cacioppo and her husband, Anthony, met Pellegrini while vacationing in Umbria, where he was cooking at an estate.

Caci North Fork brings in quickly perishable ingredients from Italy each week, from black summer truffles to porcini mushrooms, mozzarella di bufala to burrata cheese. The fall menu includes sea scallops with pumpkin sauce, smoked speck, and crumbled amaretti; porcini soup with smoked bresaola; potato gnocchi with lamb Bolognese; grilled striped bass with peperonata sauce; and grilled octopus with olives, lentils and fresh raspberries.

Caci North Fork and other ambitious restaurants such as Autentico in Oyster Bay and Aria Melanie in Bay Shore underscore the local counterpoint to the rise of catchall chain eateries, from Olive Garden and Bertucci’s to Romano’s Macaroni Grill and Carrabba’s Italian Grill.

“I see it saturated, everybody opening up with the same concept, doing the same style,” said Billy Sansone, chef-owner of Café Testarossa in Syosset. “I’m not saying that there’s anything bad about it — everybody in this business works hard.” He said, however, “To break away, you have to be different. I’m always looking for new things . . . chefs are trying to refine and modernize a dish.”

Visits to the landmark Don Alfonso 1890, the restaurant on the Sorrentine peninsula above the Amalfi Coast above the Gulfs of Naples and Salerno, prompted him to consider regional recipes. “They’re southern Italian, Sicilian, using capers, olives, raisins,” Sansone said.

“I find many chefs in Italy base their cooking on a certain area. A chef from Rome stays with what the chef knows best from the region” of Lazio.

Dishes from Lazio do find their way on a number of Long Island’s menus. But among the underrepresented Italian regions in Nassau and Suffolk are Piedmont, regardless of vitello tonnato; the Veneto, calves liver Veneziana notwithstanding; and despite a familiar stuffed veal chop named for it, Val d’Aosta.

For now.

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