I pulled into Venice Restaurant’s private parking lot just off 149th Street in the Bronx and noticed its neon sign claiming the restaurant’s establishment as 1951. How did an Italian restaurant in the Bronx that had been around for 63 years escape my radar? I was ashamed of myself.
“At work we take out from there every two weeks,” proclaimed Eugene in an email after Rick chose Venice Restaurant. Unlike the rest of us, to the grizzled Eugene, the restaurant was no secret.
With Rick back after a hiatus, this was the first time our group was fully assembled in over six months. The rust was evident as Rick first suggested a few restaurants that just did not meet our criteria including one our group, without Rick, previously visited. He finally settled on the Venice for its old school “red sauce” appeal. And there was nothing wrong with that as far as I was concerned. And that it had its own private (under 24-hour video surveillance) parking lot just added to the appeal.
The dining room had images of Venice painted over the walls while the tables were covered in mustard-colored glossy vinyl. Rick wasted no time in adding to the atmosphere by ordering a glass of Chianti. Old school red sauce aside, Gerry and I took advantage of the restaurant’s full bar and instead ordered Swedish vodka.
“How’s the Italian food in this restaurant,” I couldn’t resist asking Eugene, whose swarthy features were actually very similar to those of Sollazzo the Turk.
But, for whatever reason, Eugene was a bit slow and didn’t get the reference. So instead of responding with, “Try the veal. It’s the best in the city,” he just shrugged and reminded us that he only had take out. He did, however, whisper to Gerry that the fried calamari wasn’t very good.
We stayed away from the fried calamari but couldn’t resist the seafood salad and baked clams. Overflowing with calamari, shrimp, and, as a bonus for those who care about such things, sliced tender scungilli, the seafood salad was served family-style to the extreme and more than enough even for our gluttonous family. The baked clams, though far from the best in the city, were good enough to quickly leave 12 empty shells floating on the oily breadcrumbs that remained on the platter.
“Whaddya gonna order?” I asked Zio.
“I dunno. I think a sandwich,” Zio responded with a straight face.
“A fish sandwich? Gerry joked, reminding Zio of his unfortunate choice at our last destination, The Cutting Board (Uni and Ovaltine).
“Maybe you’re right,” he realized. “I’ll try the veal and peppers.”
Keeping it safely within the red sauce barometers, I chose baked ziti with meatballs while Rick went with the white clam sauce and Eugene the red. Gerry veered somewhat by ordering the penne with sausage and broccoli in a white sauce. Saddled by a mild gluten allergy, Mike from Yonkers had to refrain from pasta instead choosing the balsamic chicken—with a side salad.
Soon enormous platters began to arrive on the already olive oil stained vinyl tablecloth. The pastas and entrees were all very close to family size. I picked at the baked ziti; the anticipated red sauce overly sweet and not up to my very high standards while the meatballs, though spiced correctly, a bit leaden. Zio’s veal and peppers, on the other hand, were smothered in a more piquant red sauce and outstanding.
I looked at Rick’s platter of linguini with white clam sauce. “Are they canned?” I asked, referring to the clams.
Rick nodded. “Yeah, they’re canned, but I’m not complaining.” And neither was Eugene who, working silently and with purpose, slowly devoured his monstrous platter.
The rest of us, however, on this evening, just did not have the stamina Eugene had and, possibly a first in the 12 years we had been doing this, had no choice but to ask the waiter to bag up half of all our respective dinners to be eaten for lunch the next day.
As we headed to our cars in the private, security-maintained parking lot, no one had much to say about Venice which was maybe an indication why it had remained “undiscovered” for over 60 years. But despite the restaurant’s mediocrity, we were able to all convene again as a complete group and over a seafood salad that included scungilli. We couldn’t really ask much more than that.
772 E. 149th St.