For my daughter Maria’s birthday dinner, we went to Bamonte, an old-school restaurant in the former Italian neighborhood of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Open since 1900, it is the primo of Italian-American cuisine, what would be called a “gravy restaurant” in Philadelphia. On offer was every item one might expect at an American Italian restaurant, ranging from spaghetti and meatballs to cheesy lasagna to garlicky spaghetti and clams. Dark wood, chandeliers, waiters in tuxes — one can imagine that not much has changed since the 1950’s.
Yet anyone who has been to Italy knows that this is not the way Italians eat. In Italy, the pasta is its own course, the primo, before the second dish of meat or fish arrives. In Italy, you are never aware of garlic, which is used sparingly, if at all. Sauce is light, not drenching the pasta.
This is illustrated dramatically at the beginning of the movie Big Night, when an American customer is aghast that an Italian restaurant, aiming for authenticity in the 1950s, does not serve spaghetti and meatballs, but rather this highly suspect dish called risotto. When the waiter, played by Stanley Tucci, tries to placate her by saying “Sometimes spaghetti likes to be alone,” instead of with meat on the same plate in the same course, she looks at him as if he’s crazy or trying to pull a fast one.
Authentic or not, the American version is still great. It’s its own thing. It’s my idea of comfort food.