05 June 2009

Lost City Asks, "Who Goes to Pietro's?"

Pietro's on E. 43rd between Second and Third seems to exist only for the people who love it and are devoted to it. You never read about this place. It's nice to know a restaurant can survive for 75 years in New York without becoming a "hot" destination, by simply catering carefully to the people who like what they do. Of course, that goes for a lot of the restaurants I profile in "Who Goes There?," but it particularly applied to Pietro's.

Excellent photos from Eater's Krieger, as usual.

Who Goes There? Pietro's

“Better than a club,” reads the slogan on the menu at Pietro’s, the stubbornly long-lived Italian joint hidden on an absolutely uninteresting block of E. 43rd Street between Second and Third Avenues in Manhattan. It’s an apt description. There’s so much gray hair around, both on the patrons and the waiters, it does seem like these people have been spending a lot of time together over the decades. The word “Regular” is all but stamped on each diner’s worn, smiling, relaxed face. There is so much chummy back-and-forth between the customers and the blue-jacketed servers—as well as between one table and another—that a meal at Pietro’s might as well by the annual pancake dinner fundraiser at a small town Lion’s Club.

Loyalty is visibly honored by dozens of small gold plaques that line the chair rails near certain tables. They read “The Hinzler Table,” “The Cohen Table,” “The Colonel’s Table,” “The Weinstein Corner,” etc. Unlike, say, the “21” club, the engraved names are nobody you might have heard of. The wall behind one table in a semi-secluded nook bore no less than eight plaques, showing that, while you may be a mainstay at Pietro’s, you still have to share your territory. The plaques are of different sizes and feature different fonts, giving the wall of fame a kind of haphazard feel. (What? Did Pietro’s use a different engraver every time? Or do the customers have some influence over what their trophy will look like?) A waiter told me that many of the honored names on the wall still come to eat often.

The plaques lend a bit of charm to what critics have made a habit of calling a “charmless” and “nondescript” room. Indeed, there’s little to say for the acoustical tile ceiling and framed prints of herbs, flowers and vegetables. Pietro’s, which was founded in 1932, used to be on E. 45th Street, where I trust the digs had more personality. They were forced to move to their present location in 1984. The owners don’t want you to forget their history, though. A big sign near the door reads “This place has been here since May 1932.”, near another sign (above) that reads “This place has been here since 1984.”

As with many “Who Goes There?” restaurants, the fans of Pietro’s will not give you specific recommendations, but only say, “Everything’s good.” My waiter, after being disappointed that I wasn’t going to order the special, chopped steak ($45 if it was a dime), steered me to the Veal Parmigiana, which arrived, big as a flounder, at my table 10 minutes later. I commented on the fillet’s astounding size. “You gotta eat a-SOMETHING!” he smilingly answered in an Italian accent. I replied that there seemed to be little danger of starving at Pietro’s. “Absolutely!” (The veal was excellent; maybe the best Veal Parmigiana I’ve had.)

Despite the colorless room, Pietro’s has a lot of odd touches. In the Rex Stout books “Bitter End” and “Too Many Women,” detective Nero Wolfe’s assistant Archie Goodwin apparently dined at Pietro’s. (Not even Wolfe, but his assistant!) So there’s a slight literary patina in play here. In 2005, the New York Times wrote lengthy piece on Pietro’s coat check lady, Alva Barrezueta, who is able to remember who owns what garment without the aid of tickets. And Pietro’s has the only restaurant bathroom I have ever encountered with a window in its door. Expect camaraderie at Pietro’s. Not privacy.
—Brooks of Sheffield

Previous Who Goes There? columns

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