The Bronx! Hell, yeah.
Who Goes There? Mario's Restaurant
This column debuted in March 2008, and since that time I have visited many persevering eateries in Manhattan and Brooklyn, and a good half dozen or so in Queens, but not one joint in The Bronx. For this I am ashamed. It's not that I never thought of The Bronx. I ponder that rough, northerly borough rather often, and have long had a number of its restaurants on my list. It's just that I live in Brooklyn and to get there takes an hour and a half on either side. (I own no car.)
But as a Christmas present to myself, I decided to buckle down and carve out the time. So here, I am happy to say, is the first "Who Goes There?"—Bronx edition. (Staten Island: I will get to you.) It seemed a natural that Arthur Avenue, the borough's most famous Little Italy, be my destination. There are a few notable candidates along that glorious culinary thoroughfare, but I settled on Mario's, for 89 years one of the avenue's anchors.
Mario's is a huge and gaudily grand place, full of fake classical touches like pillars, arches and quasi-frescoes. The large vestibule is filled with coat racks. "Just put your stuff there," said a valet the size of a mountain. "No one's gonna take it." I believed him.
The low shelf lining the walls of the main dining room are laden with family photos. Mario's has been run for five generations by the Migliucci family, and the place, despite its ornate showiness, feels like an extension of the clan's living room. One family member or other burst into the room, a newspaper under his windbreaker-clad arm, singing "Jingle Bells" at the top of his voice, patting patrons on the back as he made a quick circuit of the premises.
Waiters, too, are familiar. In one corner banquette, a server and a longtime customer sat down together, consulting their Blackberries trying to figure out a date when they could get together. On the other end of the room, another waiter pulled up a chair next to an oldtimer who'd had a few too many. This was done partly out of friendliness, partly to becalm to garrulous, stumbling diner, an ancient Polish-American who kept talking about his Catholic education. Like many of Mario's customers, these two were faithful regulars from the area. Tourists and occasional celebrities also add to the clientele. Large parties, meanwhile, regularly walk upstairs to the reception-hall grandeur of the Regina Room.
Barbara Migliucci, wife of the current owner, was on hand the night I went. Dressed in a great sweater and black pants, her hair tinted orange, she slowly paced the room like a grandmother waiting for relatives to arrive. Arrive they did—a daughter carrying a little tot named Joey who got plenty of kisses and was then rushed into the kitchen—presumedly to find more kin. When Joey emerged, he was on top of a dessert cart and rolled through the restaurant. "What's that special today?" shouted one customer.
While Joey may have proved a very tender dish indeed, I was more than happy with my Calamari in Cassuola, which was bathed in one of the better old-school marinaras I've had in the City—not too sweet, and not shy on the oregano and basil. It came with a very good potato croquette.
Mario's started small, as a pizzeria, Barbara told me; a room with some tables and wire-backed chairs, opened by her husband's great-grandfather. Over the years, each generation expanded the dimensions. Pictures of the space in the 1940s, with its booth, blinds and excellent signage, made me mourn for what had been lost. But, through all that, Mario's has remained at the same address, taking over a nearby butcher's space, and then a fishmonger, as those businesses closed. "Soon you'll have the whole block," I suggested. Barbara thought. "That would be nice," she said.
—Brooks of Sheffield