Usually, I am pleasantly surprised by the restaurants I visit for my regular Eater feature "Who Goes There?" Almost always, I find something to like and am glad I passed through their door. I have to admit, however, that Ralph's Ristorante Italiano left me unmoved. I searched in vain for something that made it seem special, a reason it had lasted 52 years. A signature dish, a colorful veteran waiter, ancient decor, an eccentric service tradition. But nothing. I hope it sticks around, since it seems to have a special place in the hearts of some regulars, but I doubt I'll be back.
Here's my article:
Ralph’s Ristorante Italiano, on a rather lonely corner of Ninth Avenue and 56th Street, may be the most anonymous of Manhattan culinary holdouts. Only the awning announcement of “Since 1956” betrays that the joint is more than a half century old. Inside, the eatery’s decor avoids distinction like the plague: Paper cut to fit on top of linen tablecloths, the unusual awful oil paintings of obscure foreign locales, a small bar in back, acoustical ceiling tiles.
Yet, in the course of an hour on a recent sleepy, rainy, Thursday evening, nine parties happily trooped in for dinner. Some were regulars from the immediate area (including one aged solider called “Capitano” by the staff), some were theater ticket-holders, and quite a few had never been there before. The place does business, so much so that it also has regular lunch hours. (A $10.95 lunch special includes entrée plus soup or salad.)
Don’t look for Ralph. When I asked after him, a waiter chuckled, “Yeah, maybe in a glass coffin in the back.” The restaurant has changed hands a few times since its foundation. It’s also changed its look significantly. Ralph’s used to be a sandwich place, with booths and a big take-out business; an old-fashioned Italian lunch place. People would order subs and then hang out all afternoon chewing the fat. Apparently, former Fordham students still come in from time to time and reminisce about the old days.
Just thinking about that bygone Ralph’s, I missed it, and wished I could go there instead of the current incarnation. I chose the special parpadelle with shitake mushrooms and shrimp because it was made with homemade pasta and seemed a cut above the other traditional Italian dishes on offer. I also chose it because every time I pointed to something else on the menu and asked the waiter’s opinion, he responded “Meh.” The pasta was good, but it was bookended by a barely acceptable glass of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and the first utterly undrinkable espresso I have encountered in years.
I may be wrong in my assessment of the food. Two men in their late 40s, who said they’d been coming for years, attested that “everything is good.” Maybe so. One thing’s for sure: the prices are reasonable, with entrées never breaking the $15 ceiling. And the soup bowls are big enough to take a bath in.
—Brooks of Sheffield