A friend of mine asked me about Emilio’s Ballato the other day, and I realized I should probably have a list of “old school” style, red sauce -heavy, Italian comfort food spots in the city. Especially given how we lost some great ones due to COVID-19, like Forlini and Crispo.
I should note, I’m largely ignoring the panoply of mediocre tourist trap restaurants in Little Italy. Yes, there are some old classics there, but the one’s listed below are in another league, in my opinion.
So here we go. These are my favorites, in no particular order.
1. EMILIO’S BALLATO
This celebrity magnet of a restaurant is one of the best spots to score some old school, red sauce, New York Italian food. Aside from their awesome pastas, they also put serious work into their parms and antipasti. Pictured below is the spicy vodka sauce, prosciutto and peas -topped bone-in veal parm, which is commonly offered as a special and even called an “off menu” item to those in the know.
A list of old school Italian joints wouldn’t be complete without a nod to Carbone. When you walk in this joint, you feel like you might witness a mob hit! Not in a scary way – because you feel like family when you’re here (take THAT Olive Garden!) – but in a cinematic way. Everything just looks the part, from the black and white tiled floors to the decor on the walls. This place is special, and my favorite items here are the trio of baked clams and their famous spicy rigatoni alla vodka.
We almost lost this joint to COVID-19. It closed, and everyone was pissed off and upset. But they re-opened in a new location, and I’m so psyched to get back in there to try everything. This joint slings some of the best pasta I’ve had, and all of the good the Italian chefs in town know that this is the place to go when you want a delicious, comforting meal outside of your own kitchen.
4. SAN MATTEO
Right up there in the same neighborhood as Sandro’s is San Matteo, a noted two-time NYCWFF Burger Bash winner, of all things. While primarily organized as a Neapolitan style pizza joint, San Matteo actually serves up some of the most crave-worthy Italian food that I can think of. I regularly need my fix of this place. Everything from their apps to their aged steaks are fantastic. Pizza should be your snack when you go here. Save room for the mains, like their pork milanese!
5. BROOKLYN ROOTS
Relative newcomer to the “old school” scene is Brooklyn Roots. This place is the only spot I picked that’s outside of Manhattan. I know I’ll get some shit for that, since there are lots of amazing places out in Queens and Brooklyn that garner a lot of love for this cuisine. But Chef Tommy is really dialed into the food that I grew up eating. Check out his “Matty Guns” pasta dish. It’s basically a baked red sauce and mozz rigatoni dish that has every kind of meat you can imagine. Incredible portion sizes and wildly affordable prices can be found here. You can’t beat it.
6. ARTHUR & SONS
Another new “old school” style joint is Arthur & Sons. This place is red sauce to the core, and it has quickly become one of the hardest places to score a table. Everything with red in it is a hit here. The Parms, the meatballs, the subs, the pasta sauce… They even use cans of tomatoes as planters in the dining room. This is definitely the place to carb-load before a big competitive sporting event.
7. DON ANGIE
This joint is the only Italian restaurant to actually inspire me to go home and cook one of their recipes. Their “Broken Meatball Ragu” is absolute perfection, and it reminds me of Sunday visits to my grandparents’ house when I was a kid. I immediately went home and made it myself the following weekend. They use giant garganelli pasta for the dish, the perfect big floppy noodle for sopping up massive amounts of sauce. Also noteworthy here is the chrysanthemum salad and the lasagna, pictured below.
8. OSTERIA MORINI
This place was famously known as the home of $9 Monday night pasta dishes. I’m sure the price has gone up since I enjoyed that special, but it would be worth every penny even at double the price. This place is part of the Altamarea restaurant group (Marea, Ai Fiore, etc.), but it is markedly obvious that it is meant to be their rustic, home cooking style restaurant. They do great burgers and aged steaks here as well.
9. IL CORSO
My friend turned me on to this place just recently. I was blown away to learn that his wife’s cousin owns the joint. They’re from Capri. Let me just tell you: Their lemon cream pistachio paccheri is probably one of the best pasta dishes in town. It’s an absolutely delicious combination of flavors. I could eat this every day, with a side of their fried zucchini and fried castelvetrano olives.
10. IL TINELLO
The owners behind Tuscany Steakhouse also own Il Tinello, which recently just opened a second location on the east side. The move here is to get the trio of pastas as a sampler dish, of sorts. We ordered it as an appetizer because I needed to try some of the meat-focused items from the mains menu. They do a really nice veal rib chop here, if you feel like eating something more meaty.
That’s all I’ve got for you right now. Maybe I’ll update this if I ever get out to those old and somewhat infamous joints in Queens and Brooklyn. But other notable mentions here for old school style Italian food would be Isle of Capri, Becco, Patsy’s, Scarpetta, Marc Forgione, Ornella Trattoria and Parm.
Oh yeah – and it’s always SAUCE. Gravy is BROWN!