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.
Gennaro's Lounge poked 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...
The week after I first stepped into Gennaro's, I went back three times in four days. For the food, sure, and the mushroom sameness of the dining room that reminded me of all the dining rooms in all the Italian restaurants in the neighborhoods where I grew up. But also to venture past the dining room into Gennaro's dark, red-lit lounge, where I enjoyed the perpetual dusk and a shot or two. This is a beautiful old space now getting a second wind of anachronistic cool with live music, a MySpace page and a Sopranos pinball machine shoved up against the wall. One night I listened to the touch-screen juke blare out "Bullet in the Head," by Rage Against the Machine, while I waited for chef Jonathan Larsen to bake my calzone and fry up a bag of zeppoles for the road. On a slow afternoon, I sat with the old men watching a soundless documentary about Howard Hughes and the building of the Spruce Goose during World War II. Then I watched a woman with an aggressive perm and twelve-step eyes demonstrate the proper technique for stabbing someone with a broken beer bottle — taking one of the regulars by the hair, pulling back his head and miming the motion of bringing the smashed bottle up in a tight, savage arc to jam it in under the chin, just to the side of the Adam's apple.
"Dead before you hit the floor," she said proudly.
When I ate my first meatball hero at Gennaro's, it made me crave spaghetti and meatballs, and then the spaghetti and meatballs made me crave the sausage and peppers. The sausage and peppers sandwich is exactly what all the people who moved to Denver from the other side of the Mississippi have been talking about for years, craving just as long. Not everything else on this menu is as good — but not everything is supposed to be as good. Restaurants like Gennaro's are meant to have three or four or half a dozen things for which they're known — excellent plates and specialties that keep the regulars coming back, things that make neighborhood Italian restaurants part of a community and part of a community's routine: Mondays, hoagies from Bobby C's picked up on the way home from work; every Friday, pizza from Ferrara's. The accepted assumption is that the rest of the dishes at these places will be serviceable, standard riffs and expected classics done well enough that they make for a nice, occasional diversion, but not so good that they overshadow the kitchen's true hallmarks.
And so Larsen's Italian grilled cheese sandwich — fresh mozzarella laid between two slices of Italian bread that is then egg-washed, coated in herbed breadcrumbs and fried, rather like a croque monsieur — is interesting, but not addictive. Other spots do Philly cheesesteak and chicken wings better. The garlic knots are just garlic knots and the stuffed shells just stuffed shells. Even the "traditional" spaghetti (made with homemade noodles that are more like fettuccine) in red sauce is forgettable. But I'll always remember my first blissful bite of that meatball hero, the simple spaghetti in homemade meat sauce. Ditto for the penne a la vodka, with chunks of prosciutto and a tomato-cream and vodka sauce. And the calzone is pure perfection — no fucking around, just baked pizza dough stuffed with mozzarella and ricotta — that I now want once a week forever.
And this, of course, is the draw of the true neighborhood Italian restaurant — the meta-trattoria from which all others have sprung. In every neighborhood, there should be a place where those with the taste for it can find linguine with white clam sauce, a meatball hero, a calzone that they love above all others. And the trick is that this hero, this calzone or whatever it is they crave be served in a joint that's indistinguishable from all the other joints in all the other places, all with lineages that stretch across state lines and back through time to the uncertain first.
There is only one Italian restaurant with 10,000 mushroom buds, 10,000 names, 10,000 different specialties for which each is fiercely loved. Gennaro's is only one of them — but in being one of them, Gennaro's is also all of them. For more than fifty years, it has been the place to go for a meatball sandwich, a slice, a plate of spaghetti or hand-me-down knowledge on how to kill a man with a beer bottle — unique only because it's ours, but loved because it could be all the others.
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