“Get ready for a lot of flavor.”
This was what an old hand with the menu at Don Peppe said as the first plates came to our table. He could have shortened that to “get ready for a lot,” or just “get ready.” Some preparation for the meal to come is definitely in order for the uninitiated, a word that on a typical day applies to nobody at this white-tablecloth red-sauce restaurant in South Ozone Park, Queens.
Don Peppe novices need to know that certain items are not welcome on the premises, as listed on a sign on the front door: No Tank Tops, Hats, Strollers, Baby Carriages, Credit Cards.
With these exceptions, the dress code is permissive and allows for pantsuits, polo shirts, track jackets, pleated trousers, wide shorts. The manager in charge of the waiting list one recent night — reservations aren’t taken — had on a guayabera embroidered with a Yankees logo. Waiters wear white shirts and neckties. Bussers are dressed in black T-shirts with The Original Baked Clams printed on the back, a stirring if undocumented claim.
Don Peppe is about half a mile north of a long-term parking lot for Kennedy International Airport and half a mile east of Aqueduct Racetrack. Seeing the jockey silks and photographs of thoroughbreds hanging on the walls, a first-timer might conclude that the restaurant has been a horse-themed clubhouse for touts, trainers, gamblers and bookmakers since the Damon Runyon era.
In fact, the original racing décor, which dated back to the 1960s, when Don Peppe moved to Lefferts Boulevard from Brooklyn, was replaced by Italian landscape paintings many years ago as Aqueduct traffic faded. Michael DeLuca Sr., the owner, said the track crowd had started to come back recently, with bigger shares of the purse in their pockets. In their honor, he revived the equestrian motif.
A person who knows of Don Peppe only as a scheme of Turtle’s in an “Entourage” subplot may ask to see the wine list. Everybody at Don Peppe drinks the house white or the house red. Both come in bottles with no cork and no label. Both are well chilled. Both have the carefree good cheer of the very young.
It would be a similar error to wait for menus. They are not printed on paper. Everything, the antipasti and pastas, the seafood, meat and desserts, is printed in white on a blackboard. If the sightlines were better, a person with good vision could read it from the other side of Lefferts Boulevard.
Sitting in a corner, my guide couldn’t see the menu and didn’t need to. He mentioned about a dozen family-size dishes to the waiter: baked clams, fried peppers, the “special salad,” a pound of pasta (the minimum serving), another pound of pasta, veal cutlets and something called shrimp Luciano, which may or may not be named after Lucky Luciano.
“You want linguine with the shrimp Luciano?” the waiter asked.
“Why not?” So that was another pound.
I thought my guide had finished, but he was merely pausing for breath. “We should get the chicken Chinese, just so you can try it,” he said. “Oh, and the steak’s not bad either. Let’s get a porterhouse.”
As I was saying, it was a lot, and as he had warned me, a lot of flavor, although another way to put that would be to say a lot of garlic.
Garlic chopped to a fine mist and warmed with clam juice and olive oil sloshes under the baked littlenecks, a dozen to an order. Spooned over the almost blackened crust of bread crumbs, this sauce is rich and gentle. It doesn’t bully the freshly shucked clams, whose small size — inside their shells, many are no bigger than a quarter — helps distance Don Peppe from legions of other baked-clam artists around the city.
Garlic in whole cloves is browned with onions and strips of red peppers in a pan hot enough to scare the peppers out of their skins. Called fried peppers, it’s essentially a three-ingredient dish, five if you count black pepper and olive oil, and the first time you eat it you can’t quite believe how far the flavors take you. One person I ate with insisted that the peppers had to have been laced with sugar.
A more likely explanation is that the kitchen makes these dishes and others the way they are supposed to be made, adding a few flourishes of its own. This is a rare thing. Italian-American restaurant cooking is not an endangered species in New York just yet, but enough of its practitioners have closed or slumped into irrelevance to raise concerns about gene pool dilution. Don Peppe is one of the few exemplars where pride and purpose, both essential to this cuisine, remain intact. Mr. DeLuca employs three chefs, all charged with following recipes that in most cases go back more than 100 years, to when the restaurant was founded by a Neapolitan who went by the name Don Peppe. (His full name and the exact date were forgotten many baked clams ago.)
Those pounds of pasta are one place where the difference is plain. White clam sauce can be a thin soup with stray eraser tips, or it can be, as it is at Don Peppe, a concentrated broth that sinks deep into the pasta, which sits under a wide swath of chopped fresh clams and parsley. The pomodoro sauce is a thick, profoundly red gravy that doesn’t cast a watery pool on the bottom of the plate. The same sauce, or one close to it, is the bed for shells stuffed with ricotta, topped with mozzarella and run under the broiler long enough to put a crackle on the lips of the shells.
The meat sauce is just meat sauce. The marinara, though, is what every jarred sauce on the market wishes it could be.
Beginners may need to have a few menu items decoded. Don Peppe special salad: iceberg, tomatoes, salami, provolone and so forth, in a huge bowl. It sounds ordinary but somehow it isn’t. Shrimp Luciano: shrimp in a garlic-butter sauce turned sunset pink by a rumor of tomatoes. It’s great, and there’s no reason not to have it over pasta. Veal Don Peppe: chopped raw tomatoes, red peppers and onions ladled over a breaded cutlet that you could slice with a wooden spoon. Chicken Chinese: cut-up chicken in a tomato sauce reduced to a brownish jam.
The least compelling of these is the chicken Chinese, the subject of a homage on Carbone’s opening menu. (It didn’t make sense there, either.) At Don Peppe, it tends toward dryness, an affliction that can also touch the chicken scarpariello.
In several return visits, I noticed regulars eating things not advertised on the menu — stuffed peppers, a porterhouse, a tomahawk chop with a bone that you could use to prop up a car hood. The beef is better than you might expect but will not give you the false impression that Don Peppe is a steakhouse.
The best dessert is probably the cheesecake. The rest are what kids in Bay Ridge and Corona used to want on their birthdays: tortoni, tartufo, spumoni. Of course, the other people at your table will say they have no room for dessert. Even on your first visit, you’ll know they don’t mean it.
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