Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Don Peppe, King of Queens

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."
"Ozone What?"
"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 mistermeatballblog@gmail.com).
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.


Jeannie said...

I am so drooling! Every single dish looks so delicious. Agreed with you, the clams will make a very good start. Love every single dish on display.

Claudia said...

Wow. Queens has come a long way since I grew up there (3 miles from Shea Stadium, thank you very much). I remember grand bakeries but never such a feast.

Velva said...

Holy cow! next time I am in NYC , I am giving you a call. Awesome!

dining room tables said...

This is a cool place! Their food really looks so delicious! I love the meatballs so much. I can't wait to visit this place.

Anonymous said...

I have eaten there many times and have experienced the same euphoria MM speaks of.....May I suggest the Linguini with shrimp Luciana as an alternative to the spaghetti w/clams as a balance.

PS My meal is always the same when I go there also.Thanks for writing about one of my all-time favorites!

Jennifer said...

Don't tell my Italian Grandma but this is the best food I've ever ate..and I grew up in New York! My husband and I were taken there by some friends during a long layover at Kennedy. We were heading to Italy (from NC) and I couldn't image why our friends would take us to an Italian restaurant...I mean, we were just about to feast on the real thing. Oh, wow...the food in Italy had NOTHING on this place. My husband orders chicken everywhere and choose the chicken parm (he's not Italian). I had shrimp fra diavolo. I must admit, the chicken was to die for!! I wish I had heard about the baked clams...next time! I am seriously considering a trip to NY just to eat at Don Peppe's!!!!

Betsy P. said...

I NEVER go to New York without visiting Don Peppe's!! It is usually on the way to JFK for our flight home to SoCal. I just can't leave NY without feasting on Don Peppe's baked clams, linguini with clams and veal Don Peppe. It is a culinary experience second to none ! You gotta love the ambience too and the interesting array of patrons makes for great people watching !!! Betsy P.

Anonymous said...

My parents practically live at this restaurant, and I try to get there whenever I am in the waiters all know my parents when we go in there!!! Such an amazing restaurant!!This article made me so homesick and now craving Don Peppe!!!

Anonymous said...

I have been going to Don Peppe for many years and its still top notch in every way....Youll never experience better baked clams......Linginue with white clam sauce.....veal don peppe....and shrimp luciano over linginue......dont forget the Don Peppe special salad to compliment your meal......See Ya There....PHIL C.

Anonymous said...

OMG. Was referred to Don Peppe's by a race tracker and wow, is that some OG Italian food. Had the baked clams (my dinnerware is not a seafood eater and he loved them) had the pastas and meatballs, and had the veal don peppe. Two of us guys could not finish it. It was excellent. Now an anchor in my Queens restaurant list: which has one entry. Make a point to go here at every opportunity. Early dinner is best time.

Unknown said...

Yes, the Don w/ Johnny in the kitchen is the Numero Uno combination for cuisine Italiano, I agree. And, I am also a chef. Guess who has spent the last 10 years trying to recreate these wonderful dishes at his own home??? Yup. And with some success, si ! I have the White Clam Sauce down pretty darn good!

Unknown said...

Don Pepe's is SO FREAKING GOOD.... The Chicken Scarp is OFF THE CHARTS!!!