I don’t take orders very well.
In fact, this restaurant review wasn’t even assigned to me. I was asked (politely I might add) by my editor to write about a real neighborhood gem, and I’m writing it on my own terms.
And those terms were simple: I wanted to write about a hidden-away restaurant that no one else knows about, where the surroundings are comfortable, the conversation fun and the food best of all.
Suggested to me by an Italian food lover, Pino’s Restaurant at 2025 Bath Ave. at first didn’t appear as if it would fit the bill.
After squeezing my car into a spot a block away and walking over to the corner of Bay 25th Street, my hopes weren’t that high. But after a few minutes inside, I quickly realized that this was, in fact, just the place I was looking for.
Connected to Pino’s Pizzeria (a Bensonhurst stalwart for 27 years) the newly enclosed restaurant, which was formerly an outdoor dining area, offers a pleasant setting for dinner - low light and white linen-covered tables - making you forget there is a bustling takeout place right next door.
I was seated by owners John Diana and Joseph Badalamenti at a corner table directly opposite two other patrons sitting in dead-silence and barely moving over two double-espressos and half-eaten tiramisu.
There, as I patiently waited for my photographer and dining partner, Gregory P. Mango (who was busy shooting another job down the block), Diana filled me in on his plans for the restaurant. Meanwhile, Chef Ralph Andretta (formerly of Fiorella Restaurant in Manhattan and Thirty-three Thirty-three on Staten Island) filled me up with some hot and cold antipasto.
"This is the menu," Diana said to me as a plate of bruschetta (Italian bread rubbed with garlic and topped with chopped tomatoes and onions) was placed before us. "But I don’t want people to use it. I want people to tell me what they want, and then we’ll make it for them. I don’t want to tell people what that can and cannot eat." With that, he put the menu to the side.
"Ah," I thought, "a man after my own heart."
I had steak on my mind all day long and, with the large, lightly breaded butterfly shrimp with butter sauce now sitting in front of me, I knew I wasn’t going to be ordering any seafood as a main course. Black Angus was available this evening, and I ordered it medium-rare.
Mango showed up just as the last of our appetizers arrived. He unpacked his camera and quickly dug into the stuffed green "frying" pepper, stuffed mushrooms and rolled eggplant covered with mozzarella all served on the same hot antipasto platter, in a consomme with just a touch of tomato.
Mango wanted to see a menu, but I explained to him our situation. Whereupon, he offered Diana what he considered a challenge: "I’ll have some pasta con le sarde," he said with a somewhat fiendish grin, figuring that a spur-of-the-moment request for pasta with sardines couldn’t be filled. To his surprise and mine, it was.
But now I was in a predicament - I had yet to order a pasta dish. Despite the fact that my stomach was already feeling the effects of the generous portions of the appetizer platters, I knew I was going to have to find room for some cavatelli or manicotti.
Diana suggested I try one of his "special pastas," imported from Italy and coming in distinctive shapes. He wondered if I’d like the "spaghetti alla chitarra," literally "guitar spaghetti" because of it’s length - over 3 feet long.
Knowing how such long spaghetti might have ruined "Lady and the Tramp," I opted for the "Capello da Chef" (shaped like Chef Andretta’s hat) in a creamy primavera sauce.
It was a delicious choice. According to the chef, the pasta could be eaten without any sauce at all. But why would you do that when you can have a creamy-cheesy sauce atop it along with some freshly chopped veggies?
Mango’s pasta, served with a side of bread crumb (it would be a sin, we were told, to put grated cheese on a fish dish) was a delight despite the fact that the pasta used was not hollow (like rigatoni or ziti) so it did not hold the sauce - our only complaint of the night.
By the time the main course had arrived, thanks much to the oversized pasta dishes, we had already graduated to the next pants size up. Being the troopers that we are, we continued eating anyway.
My partner kept things basic, working his way through his chicken Francese ("French style," it says on the menu - this being the only thing we ordered from it) until he reached the halfway point. It was then that he decided that what remained would make for the best lunch he’d ever eat, come the next day.
Alas, my steak, served with green beans and sliced potatoes, would meet the same fate - and I was the envy of the office as it heated up in the microwave.
Still, we couldn’t leave until we tried the tiramisu, served with a dusting of chocolate and drizzled chocolate sauce and, of course, two double espressos. I consider myself a tiramisu aficionado, having deemed the confection served at the Steps of Rome in San Francisco’s North Beach the winner to date of my lifelong taste test.
And there we sat in dead silence, barely moving, with bellies full and brains pondering the next contender before us.
"You know," Diana said, as he watched us struggle. "You don’t have to eat that now. You can take it home and eat it tomorrow. You should do that."
With that, I cleaned my plate, enjoying every light, perfectly spongy bite.
Like I said, I don’t take orders very well.
Pino’s Restaurant, 2025 Bath Ave. at Bay 25th Street, is open seven days a week. Visa, MasterCard, Discover, American Express and Diners Club are accepted. (718) 996-9750. Entrees range from $8 to $22.50.