20 March 2010

Lost City Asks "Who Goes to Trieste?"

Trieste, on Northern Boulevard in Jackson Heights, may be the most isolated of the restaurants I've profiled for "Who Goes There?" But I urge you to go anyway, and order the gnocchi with veal sauce. You won't be sorry.

Who Goes There? Trieste Restaurant

There are plenty of Italian restaurants in New York that make their focus the cuisine of Northern Italy. But Trieste? Who spotlights the food of that odd, quasi-Austrian seaport on the Slovenia border? As far as I can tell, only the Jackson Heights, Queens, restaurant that's actually calls itself Trieste. It was founded in 1978 by Lorenzo, Romano and Elio Honovic, three brothers from the Istria peninsula. They didn't make it easy for you to enjoy their specialties. The restaurant hides in plain side on an ugly block of noisy, dusty Northern Boulevard, right across from a garish IHOP. To patronize it, you either have to live nearby or have a car.

Further masking the considerable attractions of the kitchen are a window-darkening set of heavy vertical venetian blinds—a mind-your-own-business decor gesture typical of old Italian joints. Also typical is the faceless "fine dining" decor found inside. A small sleek bar; ecru walls; simple square tables with white tablecloths; the requisite display of wine bottles. Trieste underwent a renovation six years ago that removed every scrap of character from the room. (There used to be a cute little coat room, and the bar was at the back.) The only survivor of that overhaul is a huge, wonderful, old framed photograph of Trieste, circa 1800.

Things are kept simple at Trieste. The menu, full of veal and seafood dishes and delicious home-made gnocchi, hasn't changed for 30 years, I'll bet. There are a couple dozen entree choices, and prices are very reasonable. Old, doughy Elio, who is now nearing 70, still works the kitchen. (Romano died of colon cancer recently, so only two brothers remain.) And the courteous, personable Bruno, in black jacket, is almost always your waiter, lunch or dinner.

The diners either live in the area or drive in from other parts of Queens. (There is parking in the nearby car wash, but only after 7:30.) They are familiars, and they greet Bruno and Elio warmly. Mainly middle-aged men, who probably got hooked on the food during the Reagan administration, they gather in groups of two and three and enjoy long, leisurely meals, beginning with martinis and vodka rocks (prepared by Bruno, who doubles as bartender) and slowly grazing through the complimentary garlic bread, carrot sticks and cheese. They get to ordering around the 45-minute mark.

Things are kept casual. A man or two will eat at the bar, talking to Bruno in Italian. Elio breaks from his hot stove to deal with a troublesome tradesman out front. The two argue outside the front of the restaurant until Elio makes his point. He's old and soft-looking, but I doubt he loses many arguments. The place sometimes feels like a men's club, as one might expect from a restaurant owned and run solely by males. The Honovics' male customers take a long time leaving Trieste. You can't blame them. Once you step outside the threshold, onto the cold, gray Northern Boulevard sidewalk, the world doesn't look nearly so welcoming. And the folks at IHOP don't know how to make your martini the way you like it.
—Brooks of Sheffield


soccermom said...

Very interesting, that I found your blog. I live in the good ole Midwest. No, I dont have cows in my yard.

My sportsman and I were thinking about taking a trip to New York.

We have never been. We normally vacation in places that are warmer than the place we currently live.

Anyways, I am glad I found your blog. Sounds like I can find out alot of interesting things and places to see prior to visiting there. Thanks.

Lori said...

Well, I must say that it took some cahones to dine at Trieste. To actually penetrate the quasi-intimidating exterior, walk in as a non-local and dine alone (I'm assuming that's what you did), was a real act of bravery. When I was in graduate school, I used to blow off classes, catch a day game at Shea and finish with an early dinner at Trieste. I spent three years in Italy and developed my own personal, preferred locations for REAL Italian food - and this one was one of the few. As a single woman showing up for cocktail hour, I was treated like the Queen. And speaking Italian helped a little, too. Glad to see its still there! Oh, how I miss that food!

Brooks of Sheffield said...

That is just what I did, Lori. I often dine alone, and not as as local, when exploring restaurants that interest me. It takes a bit of bravery, but not as much as you'd think. People are generally nice.

And I, too, speak a little Italian. It does help.