By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
There is only one true Italian restaurant — back East, in that charmed province that runs along the coast, north into New England, south as far as Baltimore. Upstate, downstate, in the barrens and on the shore, just one restaurant with 10,000 names that has grown the way mushrooms grow, invisibly, inexplicably, sending runners out into dodgy neighborhoods and onto street corners once lit by trash-can fires, sprouting buds that push up through the cracked cement and grow into another Tony's, Frank's, Mama Leone's, Mama Tacone's or Jimmy's All-Star, another Campesino's, another Gianello's — always possessive, always named.
There is only one Italian restaurant. Ten tables, sometimes a bar, sometimes a counter separating the kitchen in the back from the floor, sometimes a curtain, sometimes a door. Red-and-white-checked tablecloths or green-and-white-checked tablecloths, Sinatra or Louis Prima, pictures on the walls of long-gone relations in black and white; of Tuscan hillsides in oversaturated color; of garlic cloves, tomatoes, bowls of fruit. Mycologists have difficulty explaining how mushrooms grow, where they begin and end. What they know is that the mushroom itself — the big or little stem with the big or little cap, the things that Smurfs live in — is only like the flower of a huge fungus that thrives in the dark, underground. Beneath a thin and protective layer of earth is a fine, white mesh of tendrils that's the body of the fungus, stretching for endless miles. Ask a mycologist how this fungus came into being, and he will hem and haw. Ask another where the next nest of mushrooms will grow, and he can only guess.
No one knows where the first Italian restaurant grew in this country. Or why, other than the simplest explanation that someone, somewhere, was hungry for pasta and someone else figured he could make a buck selling pasta. But from the first came the second, and from the second came the third. Silently, mysteriously, through underground channels and secret procreation, three became six, became 36, became 10,000. They are all flowers of the same body, all connected in ways that no one but an -ologist can begin to understand, but that everyone who loves these joints and dives will recognize. The network stretches beyond Brooklyn and South Philly to North Buffalo, beyond to Chicago, into the Corn Belt, out across the mountains and down into the steaming California valleys, thinning as it heads west and south, but still there, the corpus Italiano thrumming everywhere, just beneath our feet.
Italian grilled cheese: $4.95
Meatball hero: $5.95
Chicken parm: $6.95
Sausage and peppers sandwich: $5.95
Penne a la vodka: $8.95
Gennaro's Loungepoked its head up on South Broadway in 1951. Opened by Joe Gennaro and now operated by his son, it's a relic of the days when pasta was still a challenging ethnic food, pizza an oddity of flat bread and tomatoes and mozzarella, ricotta and zeppole (the sugared Italian doughnuts) almost unheard of except by those who'd brought the trick of making them (and a taste for eating them) west a generation or two earlier. Among its fans, loyalists and regulars, it is probably better known as a bar and lounge (its sign is a twist of neon reading "Gennaro's Lounge," with the ubiquitous tilted martini glass, the ubiquitous olive), but as a restaurant it carries the distinct genetic imprint of its East Coast forebears — those places that sprouted and grew before it, that fed it and inspired it and which it mimics in almost every way.
The cloths on the tables are checked in green and white. The small kitchen in the back is fronted by a counter, where big slices of thin-crust, New York-style pizza are available by the slice. The pictures on the walls are all posed, black-and-white shots of unsmiling men in suits and hats, women in ankle-length dresses carrying parasols — Gennaro's family, maybe, but certainly snaps of someone's family. The floors are hardwood, the walls white over soft pea-green. On every table are small vases holding peasant bouquets of fresh flowers, and placemats with maps of Italy and historical facts about things Italian — just in case anyone could miss all the other clues and for a moment think they'd wandered into a Chinese restaurant.
I wandered into Gennaro's one day and thought about it for a week afterward. I thought about how warm it was even though it was empty (I was the only one there who wasn't an employee), how I caught the one waitress eating and how she laughed and covered her mouth and apologized. Mostly, I thought about the smell — the warm exhalation of crushed tomatoes, oregano and char that's as endemic to a proper Italian joint as the dirt and earth and soft flesh smell is to mushrooms. But at Gennaro's, it also has a top note of sour beer that drifts in through the door to the lounge on the other side of the wall, glimpsed through the dining room windows.
On that visit, I ate a slice and half a meatball hero. It was a great slice — wide enough to fold, greasy enough to require it, the cheese a grainy, shredded mozzarella you rarely see now that mushy buffalo mozz and mass-produced, tasteless, whole-milk varieties are so common. It was a slice reminiscent of the slices I once ate at home, before everyone wanted to know the name of the farm that raised the animal that made the milk that became the cheese that topped the slice that tasted like white paste smeared on red cardboard. And the meatball hero was killer: heavy and messy and bursting with split meatballs gummed together by a sauce that actually tasted like the tomatoes it had been so roughly made from. I ate the second half that night while watching TV, a special about large and unusual plants that included a segment on fungi and mushrooms. So now you know...