14 January 2011

Lost City Asks "Who Goes to Gargiulo's?"

This week's Eater column takes me back to Coney Island:
Who Goes There? Gargiulo's
Italian-American diners and Italian-American restaurateurs must be the most loyal in the city. How else to explain Bamonte's, Frost, Ferdinando's Fococceria, Marco Polo, Mario's, Pietro's, Tommaso's, Rocco, John's of 12th Street, Lanza, Rao's and countless other steadfast eateries that, despite predictable cuisine and often interchangeable decor, peel away the decades without breaking a sweat? How else to explain Gargiulo's, which since 1907 has remained rooted to its bleak block a couple hundred yards from the boardwalk, even as the rest of Old Coney Island tumbles down around its ears?
I'd been planning to visit Gargiulo's for years, but was spurred to action by food critic Mimi Sheraton's recent castigation of the contemporary Brooklyn culinary scene. "When Lundy’s was Lundy’s, I’d be there," said Sheraton, a sometimes commenter on this column. "When Gargiulo’s was Gargiulo’s, I went. I certainly went to Gage and Tollner." Well, I can't go to Lundy's or Gage & Tollner anymore, but I can sure hit Gargiulo's, even if it isn't what it "was."
The exterior is anonymous; an awning on a faux-classic facade. The inside, however, is Ancient Rome by way of the Marriott Grand Ballroom. It's the Banquet Halls of Caracalla. The ceilings of the main dining room—just up a flight of steps from the bar and copious entryway—must be among the highest of any restaurant in New York. Arched mirrored windows line the walls; chandeliers drip from the ceiling. Two large doors lead to what is essentially an open (or at least very visible) kitchen. A huge cherub oversees the festivities. One senses that large parties celebrating birthdays and weddings are rustling somewhere in the building, behind this door or up that staircase. The place has been a wedding and function mecca since it was founded by the Gargiulo family and continues to be so under the Russo clan, who bought it in 1965.
The head waiter—tall, good-humored, Russian and excellent at his job—told me Gargiulo's has always been cavernous. It was built to match the outsized personality of vintage Coney Island. Old pictures bear this out, though red curtains and a huge octopus suspended from the ceiling once lent the room a more colorful, carny air. "We cut the octopus up for salads," smiled the waiter. "Just kidding."
The Russos are captured in oil in a gallery of portraits just to the left as your walk in. A flesh and blood Russo could be found at the bar, filling out a large sweater, and holding an Old Fashioned between thumb and index finger like it was an egg. Many patrons took breaks from their meals to saunter down the steps to the bar, shake the Russo man's hand and examine an "American Idol" contestant or two. It's the kind of place that encourages roaming.
A party of 30 called at the last moment and was accommodated immediately. A birthday party suddenly emerged from some unseen hall, shiny balloons bobbing up and down as they meandered through the room. Old friends talked over wine long after dinner was over. Kisses and hugs were exchanged between tables when it came time to go. Every few minutes, an aged family member emerged from the kitchen in soiled whites, leaned against the doorway and wearily surveyed the scene to make sure everyone was happy.
For the volume of food they produce, the kitchen works with a certain delicacy. My fettuccine verde Gargiulo, topped with a creamy tomato sauce rich with bits of chicken and prosciutto, was tasty and far from sloppily prepared. My crabmeat salad was fresh. The bread was good. And the house Chianti was not crap (a minor miracle in the world of red sauce joints). At a neighboring table, the waiter offered to remake a dish when the customer briefly considered whether it was too salty. I heard many comment happily about their meals.
These people came from "New Jersey, Long Island, Staten Island, all over," said the Russian. "Many regular customers." He then shook the red, plastic tombola that he brings to every table of ten or fewer at the end of a meal. It's a longstanding piece of Gargiulo's schtick. Pick a number between 1 and 90. If that die comes out, your meals on the house. No one had won that night yet. I chose 31; I got 60. "Sometimes you eat free, sometimes you don't," said the waiter. "But always, a good meal."
—Brooks of Sheffield

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