The waiter bustled from table to table greeting guests, getting hugs from some and shaking hands with others, efficiently taking orders and delivering steaming plates of food. Colorful murals of Italian scenes lined the walls. Enticing aromas drifted from the kitchen along with the chatter of the cooks. A group of old-timers gathered by the entrance in companionable silence. At Italia on Main Avenue, I was surrounded by the hallmarks of a neighborhood Italian restaurant
Every community has a restaurant like this, the kind of relaxed, easy, nourishing spot where you can go for a satisfying dinner or a fresh-baked pizza. You usually run into some friends or nod to some acquaintances. The staff is capable, long-serving, and feels like family. In fact, the restaurants are usually run by families, often with several generations working together.
The menus don’t vary much from place to place: pizza – thin crust usually; pasta – with red sauce, alfredo or clam; variations of Parmesan – chicken, eggplant, or veal, as well as grinders, antipasto, calamari, and, of course, a kids menu. Each restaurant has its own variation on the theme, its own special sauce recipe, its own secret pizza dough, its own regional specialty, but you can order your favorite without even opening the menu.
Italia at 285 Main Avenue checks all the boxes for a classic neighborhood Italian restaurant. The Taccone family has been serving neighbors and friends here for 40 years. Family members staff all aspects of the operation in a tangled web of generations and marriages. Our waiter, Frank, was born in Italy, and grew up in Switzerland, picking up four languages along the way. He married into the family and is a fixture of the Italia community.
Chef Vinnie, the leader of the team for this generation, leans against the takeout pizza counter in front of the ovens and speaks with obvious pride about the restaurant’s 40 year history and the just-completed renovation. A new bar, upgrades to the dining room, a paint job, and new furnishings refresh the look while keeping the neighborhood feel.
From the dining room we could see a steady flow of take-out pizza pickups, testimony to the popularity of their signature pies. Dinners from the extensive menu were the primary choice at the tables. Chicken Parmesan is my indulgence – boneless breasts, crisply breaded, doused in marinara and generously topped with cheese. Given the substantial size of my chicken, the traditional side of penne with sauce was unnecessary, but I ate it, anyway.
Chef Vinnie invited me to come back for lunch someday and get the full history of Italia. I’d love to spend some time untangling the intricate web of family connections, hear stories from their 40 years of restaurant experience, and enjoy more of their hearty, timeless food.
Uncle Joe’s, another popular neighborhood Italian restaurant just down the street from us, has been serving families since 1937. The tiny building in Broad River on New Canaan Avenue accommodates a surprising number of tables in the cozy dining room and attached sun room. There are long tables for the family groups, booths, a few tables by the bar, and even a small outdoor eating area shaded by an arbor laden with grapes.
Pizza and pasta are the bedrock of the extensive menu. But a selection of Greek choices point to the heritage of the current owners: Pita with Tzatziki, Bifteki, Souvlaki and Gyros. Pizza is a speciality – cheese, the usual toppings, or the special combos of “Uncle Joe’s House Favorites.” Even on a weeknight, you might have to wait a few minutes for a table during prime time.
The Chicken Parm is a good choice here, too, even cheesier with long strings of Mozzarella on each tender forkfull. A shared Calamari didn’t last long. Antipasto, Caesar and green salads were all crisp and fresh.
I must confess that John’s Best in Broad River was my family’s’ default choice for years. Alas, our local branch closed, but I wasn’t totally abandoned. There is still a John’s best on Main Ave. at the Wilton line and a new location at 325 Westport Ave.
There is lots of conversational cheese melted about speciality pizza: wood and coal fired ovens, brick or deck ovens, natural yeast doughs, speciality flours and artisanal toppings. That’s all fine and good, but mostly I want the thin-crust, fresh-baked pizza or a pasta with house-made sauce from my neighborhood spot. It has that familiar, friendly flavor.
Uncle Joe’s has a Wall of Fame built of bricks engraved with the names of long time regular customers, a testimony to the relationship between restaurant and regular. It’s a connection simmered over time, just like a good marinara sauce.
You can reach Frank Whitman at email@example.com