This was basic Italian-American, the food that the country still loves. The nicest and most lauded restaurant at the time in St. Louis was Tony’s that served many of the fancier and more expensive Italian or, what were once were termed, Continental dishes including osso buco. A restaurant like that, and somewhat like Damian’s here, could be described as upscale Italian-American. That term applies to the lauded, knowing and cooly retro Carbone in Manhattan. There is another type of nice, Italian-themed restaurant of which Coppa in the Village is an example, serving Americanized Italian preparations, looking to Italy and past the homegrown Italian-American items.
The recently opened Arthur Ave, which takes its name from the street filled with restaurants in the Italian-American Belmont section of the Bronx, is none of these types of restaurants. It definitely does not serve Italian food as in Italy. Subtitled as “Italian-American,” Arthur Ave might best be thought of as Americanized Italian-American. Italian-American-themed by way of local restaurateurs who are not Italian-American set in an increasingly trendy area of a big city in 2016. Arthur Ave grabs different items from a portion of the Italian-American canon and somewhat updates them. For lunch there a half-dozen sandwiches, four pastas including spaghetti and meatballs and a version of the 1980s hit penne alla vodka, though made with mascarpone and cherry tomatoes, a couple salads and appetizers. Like a great many current restaurants, and different from the Italian restaurants of the past, here and in Italy, there is a pizza oven, and it has few different pizzas plus the opportunity to choose your toppings. The dinner menu is a little larger, though still small, with more entrées including Chicken Parmesan (for an outstanding $32), a fish of the day, a “Butcher’s Cut” at market price and Sunday gravy featuring five meats and feeding several according my waiter the other day.
The Sunday Gravy, that comes with sides of spaghetti, consists of a variety of meats that change based on the whim of the kitchen, but do not include braciole, the tied beef dish that is the centerpiece of most Italian-American versions of a meat-spiked long-cooked tomato sauce. This is indicative of what I found odd about Arthur Ave: it does not seem to really understand the Italian-American restaurant or just ignores much of it. Braciole is not found in too many restaurants as part of a Sunday gravy – that is a dish almost always made at home – but if it is going to be made and a steep tariff is charged ($42), it might be included, as a good number of patrons will expect it. Strangely, the restaurant does serve a cut called braciole as a filling in a lunchtime sandwich.
The lack of a braciole is a minor quibble, as it is rarely found at restaurants, but some other things like not having veal on the menu, the classic Italian restaurant protein, is very disappointing. No veal Parmesan. No veal Marsala. No veal al limone. No saltimbocca. No veal Milanese. Veal preparations, a treat when dining out, have always been a big attraction for me at Italian restaurants. The main meat here is chicken which is found in just two items, a grilled chicken Marsala joining the Parm. None of full chicken classics like chicken scarpariello, lemon chicken or Chicago’s chicken Vesuivio. There is not much at all in the way of seafood, the New York Italian classic Lobster Fra Diavolo has shrunk to shrimp diavolo, and no trendy branzino flow in the from the Mediterranean. The menu is limited.
I have eaten at Arthur Ave twice now. The first time was the Chicken Parm sandwich, which would have been forgettable at $8, but it was priced at nearly double that. The properly cooked and moist chicken breast was under-seasoned and not helped by a bland tomato sauce that I thought could have come out of a jar and a scarce amount of mozzarella. It was all right, but expensive for what it was. The side of polenta fries did not help much. Polenta is often fairly flavorless and even fried, and it was not as tasty as the polenta I had had recently at Kris Jakob’s new restaurant, Brasserie 1895. French fries would be a better option. French fries are invariably better, and also what you would find where you would order a Chicken Parm sandwich (or better yet a veal Parm sandwich).
The Fusilli Alfredo I had on the next visit was more satisfying. Heavy, straightforward and simple, the creamy concoction had a hint of lemon smothering the soft corkscrew-shaped noodles making for a hearty and enjoyable lunch. The dried pasta is from the excellent producer Martelli from outside Pisa, a brand that is used by many top restaurants elsewhere in the country. Though it kept its shape very well, it was cooked past al dente and a little softer than I cook at home. Probably done like most customers enjoy pasta, its softness obscured the taste of the pasta. A cheaper brand would not have detracted from the dish.
The well-stocked bar, impossible to ignore as it right near the entrance, serves contemporary cocktails and has a number of amari, the bitter disgestif that has become popular in bars and restaurant in the past decade, though I am not sure about the old school Sambuca or even older school anisette. The wine list features mostly Italian producers and, nicely, a Verdicchio by the glass and even one from the top-notch Chianti Classico producer Isola e Elena, plus some from California including a few Zinfandels with Italian last names and the excellent Mayacamas Cabernet. It’s a good list that should serve most needs, if not quite divino or Dolce Vita, or even Giacomo’s for its value and breadth.
From the same folks at Helen Greek Food and Wine in the Village, which managed to create a terrific vibe and inviting setting in the small thin small was amazingly Kahn’s Deli for year, the space at Arthur Ave is not nearly as engaging. Dark, with only windows near the entrance and brick-accentuated walls, past the bar are banquettes on the side, small tables in the center, and a separate room in back that can be used for events. Several cool vintage Italian liquor posters adorn the walls along with a couple placards in back each with trite phrases you have seen on countless Italian restaurant menus over the years. It all feels a bit forced, much like the menu, and not overly comfortable.
Cobbled together clichés, just-decent execution and with a small range of dishes, Arthur Ave is just not that interesting for someone well-versed or passionate about Italian (or Italian-American) food. But, it seems that it can work well as a neighborhood restaurant for the affluent Heights of recent-years. The fact that it barely touches on the range of Italian-American dishes should not be an issue with most diners, especially if what it does, it does well. Their version of the Insalata Caprese with house-made mozzarella and ripe heirloom tomatoes – which they also do a good job with at Helen – has drawn raves, for example. I found the restaurant to be a work in progress. At the very least, it has enticing happy hour prices on food and drink from 2:30 to 5:30 from Monday through Saturday.
1111 Studewood (just north of 11th Street), 77008
Penne alla vodka, albeit done elsewhere. Looks really good, though.