Saturday, May 15, 2010

Piccola Venezia: A study in how to treat your neighbor

Piccola Venezia (42-01 28th Ave., Astoria)

The corner lamp post eerily flickered to blackness as I turned onto 28th Avenue, leaving only the jaundiced glow from the lights on the restaurant to illuminate the sidewalk.  I'd once heard that when a street light goes out, it's an omen of a strong surge of negative energy or even worse, the passing of an evil spirit.  My roommate, Matty, insists it's simply a built-in function to preserve the bulb, which is why the beacons will randomly turn back on minutes later, without the aid of a maintenance worker.  Regardless, only a block from my own apartment, I'd never before been scared to walk down this street that now seemed quite ominous.

Perhaps it was because tonight I was dining solo, something I rarely do.  Not because I can't find contentment in solitude.  Sometimes I actually revel in it, especially at the movies.  But to be completely honest, I love the experience of sharing a large selection of items from a menu, something in which my friends readily indulge.  Dining alone, it would be gluttonous to order multiple appetizers, entrees, and desserts.  And I find it difficult to adequately assess the extent of a chef's culinary dexterity after merely sampling one or two dishes.

But tonight, I was doing precisely that.  In a rare misalignment of the planets, all of my friends were either at work, theater, or out of town.  Sitting at home reading memoirs of food critics, I had built up a substantial appetite, and decided that for a change of pace, I'd accompany myself to dinner at a nearby restaurant.

The restaurant is Piccola Venezia.  Open since 1973, it is not only an Astoria establishment, but considered by many a New York institution.  Former food critic for the New York Times, Frank Bruni, scribed its praises on numerous occasions, hailing it as one of his favorite old world Italian restaurants in all of the five boroughs.

Considering it was literally a stone's throw from my apartment, there had really been no excuse to have not yet tried it in the total of almost four years I have lived in Astoria.  Both the building facade and peculiar lack of windows at eye level had denied me any preconceived notion of what lay beyond the front doors.  Assuming it to be a more formal establishment, I placed a reservation online for a party of one, hopped in the shower, threw on a pair of dress slacks and a button-up shirt, spritzed a puff of cologne, and strolled to explore this Italian cornerstone that had, for some reason, never previously intrigued me.

I believe now, more than ever, that for some inexplicable reason I harbor an innate sensitivity toward the overall caliber of a restaurant prior to even dining.  Dogs can sense fear.  The leaves on some trees instinctively upturn when a storm is approaching.  A few of my friends are almost psychic excellent judges of character after only a first impression.  As for me, I can (many times) freakishly predict, with frightening accuracy, the merit of a restaurant without even stepping foot inside.  I don't usually subscribe to superstition, but maybe there had been a subconscious reason I had never previously tried this kitchen of one of my favorite cuisines in the world, virtually in my own backyard.  I'll travel two hours by train to ferry to bus to sample pizza in Staten Island, but not one city block to indulge in famous homemade pasta?

As I approached Piccola Venezia, a parking valet stared blankly at the building, and three Italian men in suits whispered over inaudible matters of seemingly grave importance.  When I entered, the maitre d' stared blindly past me, as if waiting for the remainder of my party to follow through the doorway.  I approached the podium.

"Good evening.  I am the Hawks reservation of one."

"Ohhhh...." He smirked at me as if I had a tertiary nipple on my forehead.  "Right this way, then..."

The dining room was relatively empty, but he paraded me like Hester Prynne through the middle of all of the diners to the farthest corner of the room, where he placed a menu and wine list on a table next to the only curtain.  As there were no windows on any other wall, when he retreated from the table, I peeked behind the velvet drape, which turned out to be merely decoration for hiding the apparently unsightly emergency exit.

A burgundy gondola with the restaurant name had been glazed on all of the china.  The servers wore maroon jackets with a crest embroidered on the lapel.  This place was screamingly old school.  Never having been to Italy, I have no point of reference for whether or not true Italian servers looked like senior citizens donned in prep school uniforms, but I had dined in enough American versions to know that this was the epitome of Italian American dining in the old tradition.

Between the garish chandeliers, wood paneled walls, and gaudy floral arrangements, I felt like an outcast at an Italian Moose Lodge.  The other diners stared at me like an intruder, and so I buried my face in the menu, pretending that I hadn't already practically memorized it on the website.  After a bluffed perusal, I pivoted in my banquet hall chair to read the engraved metal nameplates scattered across the periphery of the room.  Were these placards for favored patrons, or headstones for the unfortunate countless many who had dared dine alone before me, and were now buried within the walls?

As the server's assistant placed a complimentary plate of antipasti before me, he winced an attempted smile, and actually shrugged at me, as if to say, "I know it's obviously a plate arranged for two people, but you're the first solo diner we've seen in nearly forty years of business."

I bit into the bruschetta.  I bit harder.  I bit again.  Finally, the stale bread gave way, and crumbled everywhere, little tomato teardrops falling all over the starched tablecloth.

While I was picking up the morsels and adjusting my plate to hide the olive oil stains on the otherwise pristinely white tabletop, the owner had made his way to the dunce's corner.  Ezio Vlacich is a gingerly, sweet, elderly man, and I recognized him from the research I had done prior to my visit.  In an online CBS video clip, he was the quintessential Italian patriarch of dignity and tradition.

As he approached my table, the wrinkles smoothed as his smile faded, and my stomach churned as if my elementary school principal had caught wind I had cheated on a spelling test.  The man who had previously been laughing with the other tables, patting the backs of patrons and kissing cheeks now lost all of his tenderness and approached me in apparent disdain.

"Are you going to order something?" he scoffed.

"I'm ready whenever my server is, Mr. Vlacich..."  That had certainly caught him off guard.  His face slightly softened, and he simply turned away.

Part of me wanted desperately to stand up and yell, "Nope... I have absolutely no intentions whatsoever of ordering.  I just planned on sitting here sharpening my teeth all evening on endless complimentary helpings of this godawful stale excuse for bruschetta pomodoro, before slithering back to my sleeping mat under the Hell's Gate Bridge, if that's alright by you???"

But the other half of me, the half that honestly had no issues dining alone, was sort of getting a kick out of the whole experience, as this was unfolding to provide some excellent copy for the forthcoming review on my blog.

It was also the half of me that had willingly suspended disbelief, forgiving that the owner had claimed authentic Italian cuisine, when in fact I had already learned that he was actually from Istria, a peninsula just off the coast of Italy in the Adriatic Sea, in reality only sharing true borders with Croatia and Slovenia.  Piccola Venezia, Italian for "Little Venice", has even less relation to Italy than West New York in Jersey has to New York City.

When the server finally approached, I mentioned that I had seen online that a tasting of two or three pastas was available.  He sneered at me, and said, "I'm sorry, but that's only for two guests or more."  Judging by the emptiness of the room, I couldn't imagine that accommodating my request would have dramatically offset their portioning or waste at the end of the evening, but I smiled graciously, placed an appetizer order, and asked for just another moment to decide my entree.

Upon his return, I gestured to the section of the menu that suggested half orders for smaller portions.  I chose half orders of two different pastas, which added up the exact price of the "tasting" of two pastas.  When I finally finagled the appropriate combination of words, he didn't even seem to acknowledge I'd found a loophole. Needless to say, Piccola Venezia earns zero stars from me for service.

I attempted to wipe away my frustrations so far, and open my mind to a clean slate for the cuisine.  There surely had to be at least some reason that this place had remained open for so many years, and garnered such acclaim.

For starters, I chose the Hot Antipasto "Piccola Venezia" as it offered a combination of three different appetizers (again, I wanted to sample as much as I could for a broader assessment of the food, without ordering more than one appetizer and entree).

Swimming in a pool of tepid butter and oil, the shrimp scampi was the least offensive.  Had they not been lukewarm, they may have even been enjoyable.  The mushroom caps and baked clams oreganata were genuinely the most boring I have ever tried.  Literally a crustacean and a fungus filled with a lazy sandcastle of bread crumbs and butter.  Nothing else. No crabmeat.  No cheese.  No spinach.  Not even a trace of dried herbs.  I gulped an entire glass of water just to rehydrate after consuming the depressing mini crumb coffins.

The pasta took an upturn for the better.  It was good. In fact, it was quite good.  The pappardelle was delicately thin, and tossed in a deliciously tangy garlic, basil, tomato sauce with just a whisper of cream.  So far dinner had almost been like a shutout football game with your favorite team on the losing side.  I love Italian food, and I had honestly wanted to love this restaurant.  But until the pasta, Piccola Venezia had scored absolutely zero points, and I'd almost called it quits before even tasting the entrees.

My favorite dish was the "Bucco"lloni (that's actually how it's printed in the menu).  Despite a name nearly as corny as the decor and server uniforms, these tortelloni stuffed with wonderfully tender osso bucco (braised veal shank) and blanketed with a savory brown sauce were exceptional, and I've even craved them a few times since my visit.  The primary difference between tortellini and tortelloni is the size, and these tortelloni were enormous, nearly proportionate to a fist.

For a dessert prepared in a mold, the pana cotta teetered more than a wee bit on the ugly side, but tasted quite to the contrary with the spirited Fragoli sauce (strawberry liqueur) and fresh berries.  I enjoyed it very much as a nearly redemptive ending, as if the food itself were apologizing for the restaurant.

Who knows if it's really what's inside, but they served the espresso in the same Danesi demitasse as all of the upscale Manhattan trattorias.

I do recommend gregariously softening the biscotti in the coffee as the dipping cookies they are intended to be.  Unfortunately, they brought the meal full circle with the same chip-a-tooth crunch as the bruschetta with which the meal had so dramatically commenced.

All in all, I have no intentions of returning.  The food was collectively mediocre, with a few shining exceptions that indicate a glimpse of what this restaurant possibly once achieved in its heyday.  The ambiance was plastic and contrived.  The service, though groomed and attentive, was absolutely unforgivable.  I don't care how many times a team of multiple servers and busboys refill my water or crumb the table when you treat me like a leper.

Having worked for several years in the restaurant industry myself, I have learned to go out of my way to provide comfort and hospitality to solo diners.  Not only is it the right thing to do, but they're also occasionally businessman with American Express Black cards who are easily blown away by the simplest gesture of kindness.

Or that customer might just be a neighbor and potential patron who just so happens to also post restaurant reviews on Why Leave Astoria, a site with a monthly readership of over 40,000 fellow Astorians and New Yorkers.

When I finally gave Piccola Venezia a chance, I only wish it had given me one in return.

Piccola Venezia on Urbanspoon

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