Not long ago, while watching my motley Mets get massacred by the Giants on a particularly heinous road trip, I got a frantic call from my friend Jordie, who lives in (of all places) San Francisco. She and her partner Julie were stranded at JFK in New York and were looking at another six hours before the next flight out. She was calling me in Maine to get a restaurant recommendation in Manhattan, rightly calculating that six hours was ample time for a trip into the city and back.
Considering how her Giants were eviscerating my Metropolitans on the field, I briefly considered sending her to the rattiest of rat traps as payback. Instead I opted to act the gentleman I was raised to be and counsel the woman properly.
"Forget Manhattan," I said, emboldened by an Angel Pagan double to right. "How's a five-minute cab ride sound?"
"Maybe you didn't hear me," Jordie barked into her new iPhone. "We've got six hours to kill, Meatball. Getting to the city's not a problem. What about that place you liked so much at De Niro's hotel; you know the one I mean?"
"Locanda Verde. At the Greenwich, in Tribeca. Carmellini's the chef. Yeah, it's real good."
"Right, how about that one?"
"Suit yourself. It's just that if I were in your spot there's only one place I'd even think about going, and it's right outside the JFK fence, in Ozone Park. You could walk it even."
"Park. It's in Queens, Jordie. Just like you are right now, in case you don't know."
Silence greeted me as the top of the inning ended, the Mutts again failing to score. Then, after about a minute, came the soothing sound of an attentive friend who had embraced the notion that I would never lead her astray.
"Okay, Ozone Park it is. Where are we going?"
"Don Peppe," I belted out loudly. "It's on Lefferts Boulevard, literally across the road from the airport. The cabby'll be pissed off because of the crappy low fare, so give him a good tip. And when you get there call me, I'll tell you what to order.
"Oh, and wait, stop at the ATM first. It's cash only. And if you're looking for some company, here's my uncle Dom's number. It's his favorite restaurant. Maybe he'll even take you to the track, Aqueduct's practically next door — and he wins."
Long story short, the ladies did not call Dominic (their loss; he's the best). But they did follow my precise instructions on what to order. The two of them sat in Don Peppe the entire afternoon, they tell me, ate well and in abundance. And they have never once doubted my chow-picking prowess since.
Now it's your turn. I can't give you my uncle's number (Aunt Laura'd kill me) but I can clue you in on the dishes that will never — not once, never, nope, no way, no how, not gonna happen — disappoint. At my all-time-favorite old-school Italian, in Queens.
A couple things up front. Besides being cash only, they don't take reservations at Don Peppe, and there's no bar to sit at should you have to wait for a table, just a glass-enclosed and not terribly inviting vestibule. The dishes here are family style and must be chosen off the large blackboard on the wall, not a printed menu. The guys at the door who greet you can appear intimidating to certain, shall we say, delicate types, but they're okay and so be friendly to them. And the waiters, hardworking men who wear white shirts with neckties and black pants, are old school and helpful. (One of them, Marco, will sing for your table if asked; he once told my brother Joe, who'd expressed concern over his beet-red face and neck following an extended High C, that he has studied singing for years. A proud man, he.)
Oh, and forget about a wine list. Just order the house red or white. They're perfectly serviceable, come in unmarked bottles, and are served at the same temperature — cold.
These are the best baked clams I have ever eaten — small, sweet and very fresh, topped with just the right amount of breadcrumbs, by which I mean not very much at all. They're my favorite way to start a meal at Don Peppe (though my frequent dining companions often insist on the Don Peppe Salad to start and then the clams). Whadda I care, you want the salad, order the salad. It's good, I just prefer getting to the clams first is all.
I know what you're thinking: Clams? Again? All I can say is this: Yes. Clams. Again. In fact, if you order only one thing at Don Peppe, the linguine with white clam sauce is it.
You like garlic, yes? Good. There's a couple heads' worth of beautifully roasted whole cloves on every plate of linguine that comes out of the kitchen. And the pasta is always cooked perfectly al dente. The sauce is generously apportioned and so you'll likely be sopping up whatever is left with bread, which has lately been much better than the bread they used to serve.
I take it you like veal. Of course you do. So get yourself a plate of the Veal Don Peppe and prepare to send me a very lovely thank you note (my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org).
This is a Milanese-style veal dish, made with tender cutlets (waiters cut them with a spoon) that are coated in breadcrumbs and then fried. Piled atop the cutlets is a mixture of diced tomatoes and raw red onions in oil and vinegar. The vinegar and onions aren't at all subtle but they counteract the richness of the veal, which somehow manages to stay crisp until the very end.
Along with the white clam sauce, this is a must-have dish for me. It just doesn't get better.
There's always somebody in the group (nobody I know, but still... ) who insists on eating chicken wherever they go, and here at Don Peppe there's actually a dish that even I crave: the Chicken Scarpariello. It's a whole bunch of chicken pieces, cut up small, simply seasoned the traditional way and baked at high temperature until crispy. But take my advice and order itwith sausage and peppers. It's not on the menu board but, believe me, your waiter won't skip a beat; that's how a lot of regulars order their "chicken scarp." It's the only way I order it.
Oh, and you must get a side of escarole. Yes, you must.
I know what you're thinking. That's a lot of food. So what, you've got friends, don't you? Round them up, it's probably been too long since you all went out for a good meal together anyway.
And if you're stranded at JFK and have to kill a couple hours, odds are you're not the only one, so try reaching out to a like-minded traveler. Many a fine friendship has blossomed over a good meal and a bottle of wine, no?
Here's a listing for Don Peppe. They're open every day but Monday, for lunch right through dinner.
Whenever you go there's a real good chance one of my gang will be sitting close by.
And they'll be eating the same dishes you are.