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Restaurant Reviews

Season to Share

For most of human history, meals have been shared. Today's place-setting conventions — the individual serving plate, the personal spoon, the pristine wine glass meant for one's lips alone — are pretty recent evolutions in finickiness. Time was, in just about every culture we scooped our meals with our fingers from common vessels (or ate our way to the center of a wheel-sized round of bread, as some African and Arab cultures still do). We'd ceremoniously pass a chalice of wine or a bowl of beer around the table (a ritual also adopted by American Indians and modern high school kids in the passing of the pipe). If you happened to be a medieval lord, you might even have wiped your fork clean — properly on the tablecloth — before handing it down to your neighbor. Of course, our ancestors also ate from the tips of their double-edged daggers and scooped calf's brains directly from the beast's cooked skull; some dead European traditions are best left where they lie. But here and there, the shared "family style" restaurant meal survives like a quaint expression of communitas, a reminder of the days before all of us everywhere could have it our way, and ours alone.

Family style, in the Northern-Italian-by-way-of-Queens tradition purveyed at Matteo's, means that your first order of business, if you plan to eat at all, is to get everybody at your table on the same page. At this small group of restaurants founded in 1990 by Sal Sorrentino and his son Andrew and named for a baby grandson (there are five Matteo's in greater New York — the original in Long Island — as well as one each in Boca and Hallandale Beach), you must agree to eat more or less identically. Because an "order" from this menu is not only expensive (even the chopped salad costs more than $20) but also enormous, designed so the whole lot of you can partake. Even the half portions are enough to fill at least two capacious bellies.

Getting your entire table to agree on what to eat together is going to require diplomacy and compromise. What with the allergies (nuts, shellfish), moral imperatives (veal?!), health concerns (sugar, salt, trans fats, mercury), and perpetual weight-loss issues (carbs, carbs, carbs...), it's no surprise that few restaurants can persuade their customers to feast communally these days.

I suspect that's one reason Matteo's is full of nuclear families, extended families, and their hangers-on (one entire room at the Boca location is devoted to extra-large tables). Families may not agree on politics and sexual mores, but in general, they tend to crave the same flavors, from Grandpa down to the weeniest infant, who develops an early taste for fennel sausage and oregano presumably from her mother's milk. The rest of our fellow diners at Matteo's the night we visited the Boca restaurant were paunchy goodfellas with their very young (or struggling to appear very young) mistresses and wives. The dolls were all draped in diamonds and, except for an artfully arranged miniskirt or halter-top, little else. That makes sense too — if Mr. Big Shot is generous with the rocks, you're hardly going to argue with him if he wants to eat mussels in zuppa and chicken Matteo, are you? These dames go along to get along, and they're perched three deep at the bar and spilling out the front doors. Reservations are strongly suggested.

Our table of four was more or less harmonious when it came to assuaging desires, allaying fears, and avoiding taboos — we had only one allergy among us and zero moral qualms. The menu here is a sort of theme and variations on the dinner you might expect at a thousand Italian-American homes from East Brunswick to South Philly. Appetizers include baked littleneck clams flown in from New York; mussels in broth; eggplant with ground beef, mozzarella, and tomato sauce; fried or sautéed calamari; and salads chopped, caesared, or scattered with blue cheese. There were crab-stuffed (or sometimes lobster-stuffed) ravioli, gnocchi with pomodoro, linguine with topneck clams also from New York, and the popular penne alla vodka. Pounded veal could be served Marsala style with mushrooms and wine or breaded with lemon; or you could order a thick, more expensive chop. Chicken Matteo, one of the priciest dishes on the menu at $36, combines a half chicken with sausage, broccoli, sautéed peppers and onions, and cubed potatoes.

At our table, only Gigi had to forgo her share from our big platter of baked clams ($23 for a dozen), because — here was the allergy — bivalves make her head swell to the size of a diamond-dispensing big shot's. Too bad, since she loves them and remembers childhood hours spent digging clams on New York shores. While we slurped down our Long Island mollusks directly from their butter-slick shells, she regaled us with tales of being up to her shins in muck, how you'd find the little gastropodic buggers with your toes, and how you used to be able to gather bags and bags of them on Long Island Sound. Not that it'd make much difference if these came from Nantucket or the Indian River Lagoon — as if you could taste the regional nuances under their blanket of bread crumbs anyway. Matteo's clams were delicious, a nonverbal injunction to avoid fixing what ain't broke. There's a reason this simple recipe for baked clams has held out and even triumphed through many a gastronomic revolution. You don't need Thomas Keller and $25,000 in sous-vide equipment to make a freaking clam taste good.

You do, however, need to muster a mite more art when it comes to even so deceptively simple an offering as chopped salad ($21). The kitchen had subdivided this for us, so we each got equal portions of shredded greens, tomato, and red pepper tossed with squares of salami and provolone, pre-sliced and presumably straight from the deli. The black olives were the canned California variety. I'm not saying the salad was bad — it even had a kind of homespun charm, I guess. But if I could turn back the clock and do it all over again, I'd just order another big plate of those clams.

Ravioli stuffed with minced crab and ladled with pink shrimp sauce laced with vermouth looked pretty. The ravioli, which I'm told is homemade from a local purveyor, were the size of tea saucers. The crab filling I found a tad gamey, and the sauce, though shrimp-flavored and creamy, didn't have a lot of nuance. Still, we managed to spill quite a bit of that pink sauce on the tablecloth as we doled ourselves second and third helpings.

We hadn't quite given up on vegetables, so we ordered a green giant-sized portion of sautéed spinach ($15) to go with our veal Marsala ($30). The greens were slick with olive oil and studded with sweet, whole, baked garlic cloves. A vegetarian could make a fine meal on this dish. Our veal entrée was pounded very thin, rendering it featureless and tasteless, and honestly, those button mushrooms and a one-dimensional Marsala sauce didn't add much to our pleasure, although we spilled more gravy on the tablecloth as we heaped our plates. Of course, if I had to do it again, I might just order another plate of baked clams.

Cannoli ($7) for dessert? Sure. This one didn't look like any cannoli I'd ever eaten — it was more a fat wedge than a thin tube, but hell, it was really good. There was lots of sweet creamy ricotta, thin toasted almonds, and a flaky pastry shell, and I didn't even mind the dribblings of what looked like Hershey's syrup (which anyway is exactly what you'd be served at a thousand Italian-American homes from Camden to Roslyn). If I had it to do all over again, I'd order three or four plates of baked clams and a cannoli or two, and I wouldn't share any of it with anybody.

On our way out, we lingered over the display of photos at the door, old Sal Sorrentino himself, pictured in a hundred poses with his arms wrapped around the wasp-waists and rock-hard shoulders of many a long-forgotten or nearly over-the-hill B-picture character actor, TV starlet, or athlete. They'd all eaten at Matteo's. Maybe they'd even had baked clams. Wasn't that Oprah, like, 30 years and 70 pounds ago?

Nah, it wasn't.

Sure it was. And there was that guy, you know the guy. Richard Farina, he was in Raging Bull.

No, that was the other guy — Frank Vincent, from The Sopranos. And anyway, you're thinking of Dennis Farina. He used to play the detective — what was his name? Joe Montana? Fontana? — in Law & Order. I hear he's doing cartoon voice-overs now.

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Gail Shepherd
Contact: Gail Shepherd

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