It's a case of strange fate that Puglia Ristorante, on Hester Street, just off Mulberry, should be the oldest restaurant in what's left of Manhattan's Little Italy. It doesn't serve the best food in the area, is far from being the most famous of Little Italy's restaurants and never, ever gets written up by the food press. But some time ago, it hit upon a tourist-trap formula that shows no sign of losing steam. Big parties in, big parties out. Also strange is that there is nothing of Puglian cuisine in the menu. Just your standard red-sauce choices and a lot of mediocre pizza. It would be nice if the owning family decided to aspire to something more, and make the more of the restaurant's 91-year-old legacy. But, for now, they're not exactly committing any crimes.
Who Goes There? Puglia Ristorante
Puglia Ristorante is the Little Italy version of Sammy's Roumanian Steak House—a place people go not for the food or the ambiance, but for the implicit promise of an unbridled, wholesome good time. As at Sammy's, many a birthday is celebrated at Puglia. And just as many large tables of besotted diners clap with simple-minded joy to the corny song stylings of a single man at an electric keyboard over Puglia's brick-oven pizza as they do over Sammy's chopped liver.
In the case of Puglia, that piano man is Jorge Boccio, who has been pumping the organ and encouraging people to "put your hands together—this is Puglia Restaurant!" for 26 of the Hester Street restaurant's 91 years. There are several photo collages of Boccio on the wall, showing him sporting Elvis-like hair and sideburns, and posing with celebrities. (How did Leonardo DiCaprio ever end up at Puglia?) These photos bore little resemblance to the stooped man in the keyboard necktie who pulled the Casio out from against the wall on a recent night, and quietly stepped behind the instrument. But, as he broke into "That's Amore" to the utter delight of the crowd, the years peeled away some. "Volare" and "Sway" followed. By the time I had finished my shrimp scampi (six tough shrimp, one hundred shavings of garlic), I had heard nearly every song made famous by Dean Martin.
The long tables of carousing clappers consumed many pitchers of beer and unlabeled bottles of red wine (could this be "Puglia's famous house wine," which goes for $19 a bottle?). They were mainly tourists, I was told. Groups book space in the huge restaurant weeks in advance. They come every eve and revel in the faux Little Italy experience manufactured by Puglia. (Four different "party packages" are advertised on the website.) Jorge performs seven nights a week. How many sets he plays, a busboy told me, depends on how big the crowd is, and how generous. Judging by the number of smaller family parties that wandered in, however, it seems that Puglia also attracts its share of random tourists, as well as some local loyalists who know that a meal here is stress- and decorum-free.
One wonders what founder Gregorio Garofolo would think of all this raucous kitsch. He stares down skeptically, looking like an Italian Winston Churchill, chin in hand, from a framed photo at the back. The joint is still in the same family, my thickly toupeed waiter said. Surely, though, Puglia didn't begin like this back in 1919. But that's the kind of thing that only bothers history nerds like me. The folks who eat here aren't thinking about 1919. They're thinking about here and now, and the good time they're having, and whether their camera or camcorder has enough juice left to record all the merriment. Meanwhile, Jorge counts out the tips in his silver basket, carefully separating the fives from the ones, grimaces a little, neatly places the bills in his pocket and disappears into the next room.
—Brooks of Sheffield