Though I have greatly enjoyed busy, quality restaurants of all stripes over the years, maybe there is something special about busy Italian – and also Italian-American – restaurants at dinnertime: the oft-gracious and gregarious owners and staff, that there is wine at every table, the greater volubility, and the seeming pleasure of the patrons, maybe more so than at other types of restaurants.
The comment made me think of some of the more memorable or enjoyable times at a “busy Italian restaurant” over the years. Grotto in Houston, during its glory days in its original location in the early 1990s when it garnered some national attention, was a go-to first date place for me for years with its usually excellent, vibrant Americanized Italian fare that drew on owner Tony Vallone’s familial ties to the Naples area in always bustling, festive setting aided by slightly bawdy murals and in an atmosphere that I found eminently comfortable. It also drew plentiful numbers of patrons with a lot more money and taste than I had at the time, leading me to believe I knew more than I did about dining Italian-style.
Without the same type of style, though as busy, or busier, was Cunetto House of Pasta in St. Louis where I traveled for work later that decade. It was packed each of the few times I went, usually having to wait with an appropriately stiff drink or two in the homey, somewhat tacky (or just Midwestern) bar area before proceeding to the dining room that was invariably filled with pasty and plus-sized St. Louisans to fill up on wonderfully over-sauced and tasty plates of Italian-American pastas or tender, succulent pieces of veal along with the din of diners doing the same, happily.
Il Latini in Florence was recommended by the owners of the pensione where I stayed along with a couple friends and it initially seemed that it might have been a tourist trap as we waited in with other visitors in a queue for a table, but the food and experience were terrific – excellent versions of the robust Tuscan classics including an entire roasted rabbit on a spit that evening and well-made, too-easy-to-drink vino rosso della casa served in fun 1 ½-liter fiaschi – and all for a comparative song. There is a reason why it has long been a Bib Gourmand selection in the Michelin guide, and a wise detour for a couple of hours of gastronomic fun while in Florence.
Maybe a year or two after that initial visit to Il Latini, my brother and I were in New Orleans for a pre-wedding celebration for our other brother. That first evening we ended up at the very popular Eleven 79, a Creole-accented Italian-American that shuttered a few years ago. The visit to a prime table in the middle of a very crowded, boisterous dining room, courtesy of a connected local, was prefaced by an arguably obscene number of drinks, in typical New Orleans tourist fashion, and possibly helped in the enjoyment of the crawfish bisque and tender, excellent veal scallops cooked with spinach.
On a first night in another city some years later, Sorrento, La Basilica was the busy Italian restaurant that my family and I visited to great luck. Sitting in one of the numerous tables in a small piazza adjacent to the restaurant, both the Neapolitan classics, especially the pastas and preparations with local shellfish, and the atmosphere, were excellent. The wine, beginning with a top-notch Prosecco from the Cartizze region and then a fair amount of local Fiano and Greco white wines, aided it all.
The most recent of the most enjoyable visits to a busy Italian restaurant was to the least Italian of these. It was a couple of summers ago, again with my family, to Franceschetta 58 in Modena, the sibling to the high-flying Osteria Francescana, which had just been named the best restaurant in the world for a second time. Its cuisine, somewhat reflective of its staff, was wide-ranging and not necessarily all Italian. No matter, it was in Italy and a lot fun. And, I had a really tasty pasta dish – Abruzzese-style chitarra spaghetti with bread crumbs and an anchovy sauce – in any case. The visit was particularly memorable, in large part, because we nearly didn’t eat there at all, arriving late in the lunch hour without a reservation and with ten people. Initially turned away, the very accommodating front of the house folks, eventually found room for us, scattered in several tables in the small dining room. The closeness of tables and the conviviality of the guests from around much of the globe and the waitstaff made for a memorable visit complemented by interesting, mostly all delicious fare.
These are first of the visits that come to mind. Yes, there does seem to be something about “a busy Italian restaurant.”
Paccheri with local seafood at La Basilica in Sorrento