Authenticitology New York City Entry #94 Roberto's
Before my recent lunch at Roberto's, the Zagat's 27 restaurant near Arthur Avenue, I imagined that my review would write itself. I could stick it to Mario. Here in the Belmont neighborhood of the Bronx was an exquisitely authentic Italian cuisine, unavailable in the boot of Manhattan. Sometimes reality sticks its Roman nose in one's plot.
Italian restaurants come in two flavors: not the red South verse white North, but those that trade on the inspiration of the chef and those whose inspiration is from tradition. Some Italian restaurants are marketed through celebrity, others through legend. Roberto's, something of a hybrid, slants towards the latter.
It is not that Executive Chef Roberto Paciullo is an unknown, and Roberto's is known for its creative daily specials, hardly the mark of a red-gravy Sicilian (Chef Roberto hails from south of Naples). Roberto's is a more adventurous enterprise than most of its neighbors, such as the down-home Dominicks. Roberto's is a stylish, white-tablecloth place with exposed brick walls, decorated in tones of gray and yellow, even if it wishes to trade in hominess by its stout refusal to take reservations and keeps a chalkboard for its specials.
To be fair, some fine restaurants falter at lunch, when the evening crew - and sometimes the chef - are away. And the meal was hardly distressing, but the main course specials were undistinguished. Our meal was on a different order than the satisfactions of Dominicks, but not so impressive to demand a visit on a busy Saturday night without reservations.
Our appetizer was the comfortable zenith of our lunch: Insalata di Bocconcini: Bite-size Mozzarella, Roasted Pepper, Sundried Tomatoes, Sopressata, and Spiedini alla Romano (thin wedges of baked cheese sandwich) over Mixed Greens. Quality ingredients, carefully prepared and presented. However, with the exception of the buttery Spiedini, the plate didn't require the fire's touch.
We chose a daily pasta special, Mezzanelli with Fava Beans, Cherry Tomatoes, and Pecorino. The Mezzanelli, a thick rod, was properly cooked, although the exploded cherry tomatoes did not stand the heat well, providing a squishiness in what otherwise might have been a sturdy dish with delicate al dente favas.
Entrees were moist flubs. My companion ordered Soft-Shell Crabs with Spinach. But rather than lightly and crispy fried, the crabs were sodden, a failure that the soggy spinach did not hide. Veal Scallopine with Mortadella, Peppers, and Scamorza (a curd cheese from cow's milk) was a casual mistake. I recognized and appreciated the quality of the ingredients, but the plate edged toward the sloppy and gloppy. As with the crab, the dish had a watery excess. The veal was a high-quality product, as was the cheese and mortadella. The problem was preparation, perhaps a novice dishwasher was filling in this weekday lunch.
Many excuses can be made for this beloved restaurant. And I am tempted to embrace all to preserve my ardor for authenticity. But considering our entrees, Roberto's is not our fantasies. As in so much of the Bronx, what IS nips the heels of what MIGHT BE.
603 Crescent Avenue (near Arthur Avenue)
4 weeks ago