Clams, Red Sauce, and a Reason to Kiss the Ring


There is really only one Don. The Don. No, I don't mean the real estate millionaire, failed-Presidential candidate, and reality TV-show host with the bad comb-over. I mean Don with the utmost respect as in "Godfather." I mean Don Peppe Ristorante in South Ozone Park Queens.

Don, as it's popularly known, was established in 1942. As you enter, you feel as if you've stumbled upon a family reunion. Particularly if your family's name is Lucchese or Gambino. As one of the great temples of Italian-American cookery, Don Peppe's has long catered to members of infamous crime families with some mixed results.

Recently the Feds banned paroled "Fat Tony" Rabito from eating at Don Peppe as they did not want him consorting with his former colleagues. Equally popular with law enforcement, the Feds wiretapped Don Peppe in connection with the arrests of union leaders conspiring with mob leaders like Ciro Perrone. Having such clientele can also be dangerous to the staff. It was reported that after a waiter spilled a drink on the wife of Lucchese crime boss Paul Vario, he ordered his capos, including famous FBI rat/informant Henry Hill, to attack the waitstaff and cooks with lead pipes after they closed up for the evening.

The restaurant looks like a union hall with cheap oil paintings decorating the walls like you'd get from one of those "art" shows they hold at Holiday Inns. Also taking up an entire wall is the menu. You will not be handed individual menus. Waiters will not only recommend what's good, they will not ever likely spill anything on you ever again. Everything at this "family" restaurant is served "family style" meaning each dish easily serves four or five people. The wine list is best memorized by singing that old Billy Joel refrain, "A bottle of red, a bottle of white," each served in non-labelled, chilled green bottles. The wine, like the food, is homemade and equally memorable.

Start with baked clams. These are not the big chewy baked clams that are minced and mixed with bread and shoved back into the shell. These are tender, individual cherrystones in their original shells with a light blanket of breadcrumbs which are finished under the salamander to give them crunch and which swim in an ocean of garlic and butter sauce that you heap on top of the clams and loaves of warm Italian bread provided for such a purpose. Shrimp Luciano may or may not be named after the famous Sicilian mobster "Lucky," but you will consider yourself lucky to try them in their pink, buttery sauce with yet more bread to act as the mop.

After the clam and shrimp antipasta, it's time for pasta. Linguine with clam sauce (can't get enough of those clams) will fulfill your recommended daily (or perhaps yearly) requirement of garlic. Choosing between fettucini al proscuitto or spaghetti Bolognese is impossible though you can't go wrong with either.

For the main course, there are three chicken dishes offered that no one can refuse: chicken scarpiello — a crispy baked hacked up well seasoned chicken which is unbelievably good but made even better if you request sausages and peppers to be mixed in with the chicken. Chicken parmigiana is so tender that you don't need a knife with marinara sauce that is perfectly pH-balanced between sweet and acid. As a change of pace from marinara, order the chicken Chinese, which has no Asian influence to speak of other than that the sauce is red pepper rather than tomato-based and is thoroughly addictive.

As for beef, the veal parmigiana can't miss, but takes a backseat to the eponymous Veal Don Peppe, which instead of mozzarella and red sauce is Milanese-style — fried, breaded veal cutlets shrouded with freshly-diced tomatoes and onions. Think of it as Italian salsa. Speaking of red sauce, the simmering beef braciole fell apart when sliced leaving unclear whether the thinly-rolled stuffed beef was intended to be flavored by the sweet red Sunday gravy or whether the braciole's sole purpose was to beef up the flavor of the sauce.

The HBO show Entourage has been filming at Don Peppe as part of a storyline that one of the characters is plotting to team up with a Yankee and a Knicks player to open a branch of Don Peppe in California and introduce his favorite baked clam dish to Angelenos. It's pure fiction. Hollywood natives would not pay the requisite respect to Don Peppe. Back to reality, rumor has it that the owners of Don Peppe are really looking for a Manhattan space, perhaps in the Meatpacking District, in order to expand. Once they get a taste of the authentic Italian-American food, Manhattanites will gladly line up to kiss the ring of Don Peppe.