Readers have been urging me to make Villa Berulia in Murray Hill the subject of a "Who Goes There?" for more than a year. I finally made it there this week. I'll have to go back to get that Dalmatian stew.
Who Goes There? Villa Berulia
Villa Berulia, a white-tablecloth, lunch-and-dinner Italian restaurant run by Croatians, has been gathering little attention and much moss on E. 34th Street near Park for 30 years. Hiding in plain sight behind an almost anonymous facade, it's family run, and beloved by the older members of dignity-starved Murray Hill.
Though it would seem to be in the middle of nowhere, eating-scene-wise, it does well. "We've been packed since the first day we opened," said my graying waiter, one of the many career servers who work there. "It's residential to the east. From the other direction, we get all the businesses. People from the Garment District come over." During a recent lunch hour, there were business lunches aplenty. Guys talked turkey over generous plates of pasta and veal. Suited men rose to their feet to take phone calls outside.
Though seemingly Italian on the surface, Villa Berulia's soul can be seen peeking out from the menu. You can order Strukli, a traditional Croatian ravioli; Buzara, a Dalmatian stew; or Pasticada, another Dalmatian stew, made with beef and served with gnocchi. I tried to order the latter, but they were out, my waiter said. I found it hard to believe the dish was that popular, and suspected the kitchen staff was saving it for themselves. I had the veal scaloppine instead. It was large and enjoyable. Like other Italian places of its traditional, quasi-formal, old-world stripe, Berulia's food is not terribly subtle or distinctive. It's comfortable. It's familiar. (The oysters, however, were above average.) The New York Times' underwhelmed capsule review of the place gets it about right: "if you're looking for someplace to eat on East 34th Street, this will do."
Yet, when people of certain age stumble upon the place—the kind of people who appreciate friendly service, a quiet room and a dessert trolley (and who, really, doesn't?)—invariably feel like they've uncovered a hidden gem. Who am I to tell them no? The help is officious, but not obsequious. The space is odd, a grotto-like succession of rooms and arches and levels, nooks and crannies, making it very easy to eat in private, seen by very few of your fellow diners. Recently, the restaurant was employed for a reunion of veterans of Mayor Robert F. Wagner's administration. It was an apt choice. There were plenty of restaurants like this in Wagner's day.
—Brooks of Sheffield