The recent announcements about the coming death by rent hike of Rocco's and Rocky's--along with the closure of Aunt Suzie's in Park Slope--has me wondering if we've been witnessing a mass extinction of the classic "red-sauce joint." Looking back, the answer is obvious.
The Beatrice Inn closed in 2005 after about 80 years. The new owner promised "Monday Scrabble sessions and Italian-food specials will cater to the old regulars." That didn't happen. It became a celeb hotspot that enraged the neighbors and eventually shuttered.
The Minetta Tavern closed in 2008 after 71 years when the rent skyrocketed. Keith McNally took it over, changed the Italian menu to French, fancied it up, and stashed Joe Gould somewhere he may never be found.
Gino closed in June 2010 after 65 years. Once a favorite of Frank Sinatra, it's now a cupcake chain store from Beverly Hills.
Fedora closed in July 2010 after 58 years. The new owner had said it would remain almost exactly the same as it was, but that didn't happen. Like Minetta's, they also serve French-ish food.
Carmine's at the Seaport closed in July 2010 after 107 years. The rent was jacked up.
With Rocco and Rocky's both closing at the end of 2011, counting 90 and 30 years in business, respectively, that makes about 500 years of Italian-American cuisine and culture vanished in just the past 6 years. And I'm sure I've neglected to mention others.
Last meal at Minetta Tavern: Tortellaci Minetta
Interestingly, just as these classic places are vanishing, we're simultaneously seeing the rise of the hipster or foodie faux "red-sauce" joint, run by chefs who aim to "elevate" Italian-American cuisine from its apparently lowly position.
To wit: meatballs. They're everywhere, from the ever expanding Meatball Shops to the Meatball Factories. But they're not mom-and-pop meatballs. They're made by young, hip guys who attended culinary institutes and came up through French bistros and Hamptons clubs. They're made by guys from Top Chef, who top them with BBQ sauce or truffle cream.
The Torrisi team, though mostly Italian-American, caters to the foodie crowd as they perform "gourmet riffs on classic red-sauce fare" and create "upmarket versions of humble Italian-American deli favorites." They will soon plant their flag in Rocco.
Adam Platt called Danny Meyer's Maialino both "authentic" and a "painstakingly rendered facsimile" of a Roman trattoria.
Maybe that sums up the kind of place that is replacing the red-sauce joint--authentic facsimiles. Which is to say: ersatz.
It wouldn't be so bad, having these upscale places around, if they weren't helping to send mom and pop--or should we say Nonna and Nonno?--into retirement.
For awhile now, there's been something about "red-sauce" that inspires scorn from the foodie elite. A Wikipedist says the term is pejorative, and that the mom-and-pop image of these restaurants is a cliche. Italian-American food has been maligned in this city since at least the 1980s, according to Anthony Bourdain, who writes, "We were almost made to feel bad about any secret appetites we might retain for spaghetti and meatballs" once the gourmets took over.
Call the culprit classism, class climbing, or murderous Oedipal rage, either way, real Italian-American food, made simply and inexpensively, is vanishing from the city.
Last meal at Gino, ravioli and meatballs
For true authenticity, not the painstakingly rendered kind, we still have John's of 12th Street and Manganaro's, which are my two favorites of what remains. We also have Monte's and Villa Mosconi. We have the dwindling fragments of Little Italy. Outside Manhattan, you might have better luck.
If you have a craving for meatballs, or for anything Italian-American, find your way to these places. They survived the 20th century--help them survive the new New York.