27 March 2009

Lost City Asks "Who Goes to Lanza Restaurant"?

My latest "Who Goes There?" foray for Eater took me unexpectedly to Lanza's on First Avenue. I hadn't planned to go there, but I was in the neighborhood and passing by and, it being dinnertime, I thought, "Why not? It fits the profile."

Who Goes There? Lanza’s Restaurant

Lanza’s Restaurant is easily the oldest eatery on the ever-morphing, East Village central alley of First Avenue. With the nearby John’s of 12th Street, and the DeRobertis and Veniero’s pastry shops, it forms a sturdy quartet of old-style Italian East Village eating traditions. Lanza’s, in some ways, comes off the most kitschy of the four, in part because of the stained-glass frontage and the trompe-l'œil wall murals of various famous Italian scenes (Mount Vesuvius, Lake Maggiore).

But all those features are original, or near original, as is the tin ceiling, and, truth is, Lanza’s has changed very little over the years—as one couple who hadn’t been to the place in 20 years remarked on a recent evening.

The place was founded in 1902 by Michele Lanza, who, if you believe the lore, was chef to Victor Emmanuel III. (If you were chef to the king of Italy, would you quit to open a small joint in New York’s then gritty Lower East Side?) Whatever his circumstances, Lanza must have been a culinary trailblazer; a 1935 menu indicates he was purveying a lot of Italian specialties then unfamiliar to American palates. The 2009 menu has changed a bit (more emphasis on pasta, and many fewer selections, if you can believe it; the old bill of fare was enormous), but it adheres to the classic southern Italian line-up: Chicken Scarpariello, Veal Scalopine, Trippa. The homemade gnocchi is prominently advertised in the window, and it doesn’t disappoint. Like the huge house meatballs, it stands up to the sauce and the teeth. The food in general, in fact, is a cut above the usual red-sauce joint fare. It’ll stick to your bones.

Regulars, who like the way things are and want to keep things that way, sustain Lanza’s. Ninety percent of the clientele are repeat customers from the local area, my waiter told me. Old couples joke with the very attentive waitstaff. Younger couples drink sangria after sangria. Friends sit down with a “Here we are again.” Content parents take their (largely unimpressed) children.

One imagines these loyal patrons weren’t too happy a few years back when Anthony Macagnone, local mini restaurant mogul, bought out the Lanza family interest and hung out a new sign that said “Sal Anthony’s Lanza Restaurant,” with the “Sal Anthony” part in big letters. That sign’s now gone—thank God—and it’s back to just Lanza Restaurant. (The original, far-more-appealing neon sign hangs back in the kitchen. You can see it on the way to the men’s room.)

In fact, one of the few main changes to the dining room of recent vintage are a couple stained-glass panels the vainglorious Anthony put in sporting the initials “SA.” The Lanzas probably cast a fish-eye on that. The family still owns the building, by the way, and some of them evidently live upstairs. From time to time, they have parties in the space. That’s one way to keep an eye on the family business, even if you don’t own it anymore.
—Brooks of Sheffield


Jill said...

In looking back at turn of the century newspapers from NY for references to people living in the East Village (not called East Village then) I found almost all references to residents here had Italian surnames.

Brooks of Sheffield said...

I'm sure that's right, Jill. I wonder that more German names didn't pop up as well.

sean said...

I was there in 1968 one Sunday evening with my girlfriend. We were the only two, except two gangster types at the rear.

One was bragging about having politicians in his back pocket: "Don't worry," one said, "I bought his brother the judge, and I can buy him!"