Salerno's, it says. You decide on impulse to turn in, park, walk through the front door. There's a pile of fliers for the American Legion Gun Show beside the entrance. Waiters and waitresses don't look as if they're waiting for their agent to call.
Suddenly, you can feel it, can't you? The authenticity? It's Mulberry Street in excelsis. And then you're back on the old New York block again. Jerry Vale is singing "Al di La" on the jukebox, and it's Sunday night. Carmella's in the kitchen, Connie's learning to apply eyeliner like she was striping a new stretch of I-95, and Carmine's getting hit on the back of his head for not using his napkin.
As you wait to be seated, you take in the place. It occurs to you that Salerno's, which opened ten years ago, is what Bucco di Beppo wishes it were. The 30 or so tables have leatherette covers with a pattern that was popular in 1960s Miami Beach condos. The two main rooms are papered with framed photos of happy patrons. A stethoscope on the wall illustrates the homemade sign beside it: "We listen to your complaints."
But no one seems to be complaining -- not even about the ad hoc approach to getting seated. Sometimes there's a hostess, sometimes a waiter takes over, and sometimes a man who appears to be owner Anthony "Tony" Salerno himself ushers you to your booth. Then a service person appears. It might be a waitress with makeup thicker than cotton batting who can't read her own handwriting when she tells you the specials ("What the hell did I write here?"). Or a waitress whose contours confirm her helpful suggestions ("I'm on a manicotti kick right now!"). Or a waiter who tells you exactly what's what: Choose something other than the rigatoni and the evil eye be upon you.
Don't worry. Follow his orders or follow your heart. You can't go far wrong.
Have you ever been to restaurants with friends from "old country" families who snipe at each of your suggestions with conversation-ending ripostes like "No one makes tripe like my father" or "My grandmother makes the only baccala I'd eat"? Instead of kicking yourself for not choosing Mexican, take them to Salerno's and watch them shut up.
The menu speaks the culinary language of Campania, a region of Italy comprising Naples, the Amalfi Coast, and Capri. Though famous for pizza, spaghetti, and buffalo mozzarella, Neapolitan cuisine got a black eye through overexposure and, in the early 1980s, was pummeled by its northern Italian cousin as Americans became enthralled with nouvelle cuisine.
So if you're searching for lemon fusilli and a formal repast, then make like Dionne Warwick and walk on by, because Salerno's serves the kind of fork-twirling, garlic-bathed Italian food everyone used to crave before they found out lettuce came in purple. The crowds at dinnertime prove there are still enough people around who would rather find clams in their white sauce than truffles.
Chef Joe Piccardi, who started his career as a pizza delivery man, has the smarts to stick to what he knows -- and he knows that in Southern Italian cooking, fresh ingredients are king. Nothing dried here -- not parsley, basil, or even oregano. The provolone and mozzarella are imported. No off-the-shelf olive oils or Publix parmesans.
Since you're hungry, you might be persuaded to forget the dinner menu and go for a quick carb-loading. Consult the takeout and delivery menu. You want a hot sub dripping with veal parmesan or sausage and peppers? The men in the kitchen will make one for you in two sizes, regular ($5.50) or super ($6.50), and hot or cold. The pizza menu offers a full range of choices -- specialty pizzas ($15.95 up to $27.95 for the shrimp, scallop, and bacon pizza), deep-dish pizzas (two sizes), and regular pizzas (two sizes). And who could forget the calzone or stromboli (three sizes, $9.50 to $13.50)?
If you want to go for the full-course meal, a recommended way to start dinner is to order cabbage and beans ($5.95), a small dish of layers of bread topped with white beans and cabbage, then covered with melted mozzarella. Or work through a monster antipasto ($7.50), a plateful of salami, cappacolla, provolone, pepperocini, anchovies, black olives, and tomatoes on a bed of iceberg lettuce. Though the tomatoes are a little tired and the quantity of iceberg heavy-handed, you'll respond to the lack of fuss about the food. Add a warm garlic roll or two ($1.60 for a half dozen) and you'll feel like you've already finished a meal.
Other consistently rewarding starters are the soups ($3.25). The two most typical of the restaurant and the cuisine are the beef soup -- green beans, potatoes, and carrots in a rich broth -- and the Italian wedding soup, a classic, basil-seasoned blend of small meatballs, fresh escarole or broccoli rabe, celery, and carrots. Even a small bowl of either of these soups, called minestra maritata in Italian because they represent a marriage of meat and greens, can easily fill you up, so eat with restraint.
With the main courses comes the red sauce, the key to so much of the menu's success. Knowing the secret to Salerno's red sauce could break up a marriage -- or mend one. Following all the right recipe rules, Piccardi produces his sauce simply by reducing the natural juices of the ingredients and adding secret amounts of the classics. He's especially good at getting the right amount of sweetness in the sauce. And not too much oregano. "Mom never used it, except a little on pizza," Tony Salerno declares. "Too bitter."
And the pasta? Though not cooked as al dente as served on the Boot, it's delicioso. Neither the shape, the sauce, nor the number of people at the table matters. What heightens the delight is that the Salerno's kitchen makes its own gnocchi, tortellini, and egg and spinach fettucini with choice of sauce, such as pomodoro, spinach crème, meat sauce, or mushroom sauce ($8.95). Biting into the full, nutty taste of the fresh semolina is like finding a clean, empty stretch of beach.
Or you can go with one of the 12 specialty dishes ($10.95 to $16.75). Recommended are the tender pork chops with peppers, onions, and potatoes ($14.50) or the beef or pork braciole cavetteli ($14.95). The latter, Campanian classics of rolled pork (or beef) stuffed with bread crumbs, garlic, and parsley and served with tomato sauce or "big" spaghetti, shows the kitchen's skills off to good advantage.
Not all bells ring true at Salerno's, however. The salads ($2.50 to $6.50), from caesar to mushroom, don't provoke much interest, even when covered with homemade, all-natural salad dressings such as gorgonzola basil. And the dessert choices (cheesecake, cannoli, even the homemade tiramisu, from $3 to $3.75) seem decidedly after-the-fact -- which they are, considering you've just finished 2,000 calories of fat and carbs -- not to mention two glasses of the decent house chianti ($3.95 per glass).
The army chow-line portions at Salerno's may be the reason many of the patrons sport elastic waistbands. Make Salerno's a habit and you too may need to let out a few inches. If you don't want to leave the place groaning from overindulgence, leave it grinning because you've been smart enough to ask for a doggy bag.
You may also leave Salerno's slightly disappointed that you are not under a Neapolitan sky. To assuage that feeling, consider the leftovers that the waitress with the eyeliner has so kindly wrapped up for you. Suddenly, it doesn't matter that you're standing there in the sulfurous air, looking out at nothing. You've got Salerno's to remember.