For years, I’ve been reading about the “other” Little Italy on Arthur Avenue, in the Bronx. It’s supposed to be less of a tourist trap. The food is supposed to be better. Last weekend, with my son in town, we visited the legendary Roberto.
The restaurant has been in a lovely townhouse on Crescent Street, just steps away from the main drag on Arthur Avenue, since 1989, when it was Tony & Roberto’s. In 1993, Times critic Molly O’Neil awarded one star. A few years later, brother Tony went back to Salerno, leaving Roberto Paciullo in charge by himself—still stopping by every table to ask how your meal was.
From most parts of the city, it is not especially easy to get here by mass transit. Fortunately, we live close by the George Washington Bridge Bus Terminal in Washington Heights, where you can catch the Bx36 bus to the corner of Bathgate Avenue and E. 180th Street. That still leaves you about eight blocks away, and you’d best have a map with you unless you already know the area. The closest subway stop, 182nd–183rd Streets on the D line, leaves you with a good 15–20 minutes’ walk.
Roberto does not take reservations except for large parties, and if you arrive at prime times you have a long wait ahead. We got there around 5:30 p.m. on a Saturday, and it was already nearly full. The hostess said she could seat us downstairs, which didn’t sound so good, but was actually a blessing. We were in a small, quiet room with about 6 tables, dominated by a long wine wall with hundreds of rare bottles, mostly magnums and double-magnums. Two hours later, when we left, the main dining room upstairs was noisier than a train station at rush hour.
The menu is long, and on top of it the server recited a dozen or more specials. Naturally, by the time he’d finished his lecture we’d forgotten at least half of them. We got the sense that large portions were coming, so we settled on one antipasto, two pastas and two entrées to share amongst three people. That turned out to be about right.
We started with a good spicy Cotechino ($14), or Italian pork sausage, with spinach and cannellini beans. Both of our pastas were specials. There were tender Agnolotti ($21) filled with goat cheese and braised short rib; and Fettuccini with a short rib ragoût ($25). I don’t think we actually meant to order short rib twice, but that’s what happens when recited specials go whizzing by too fast. My son made short work of Pollo Affumi ($21), or chicken with prosciutto and mozzarella, while we shared a tender Lamb Shank Ossobucco ($26).
None of the savory courses came out quite warm enough. Dishes weren’t heated before the food was plated, and they cooled a bit on the way from kitchen to table. The captain served us family-style, but anything left cooled quickly, since the original plates weren’t warm. Silverware was not replaced after our first course, but it was after our second.
Dessert was, I believe, a terrific almond cake with cinammon ice cream, which the three of us shared. (It’s the only food photo I took that is worth publishing.)
The wine list doesn’t seem to have any bargains, but we got a perfectly respectable 2003 Villa Puccini Chianti Riserva for $44.
I have no idea if we got the best, the worst, or the average performance for this restaurant. With such a sprawling menu and 240 covers a night, it’s inevitable there will be highs and lows. Everything was solid here, but the food was somewhat let down by the service. Still, it was a fun evening, and we’ll probably try it again sometime.
Roberto (603 Crescent Avenue at Hughes Avenue, Bronx)