*with a few dishes from subsequent visits*
Happiness is here to be had. Likely covered in red sauce that packs a zing. And garlic. I say, grab yet another piece of bread and start the dunk. Into happiness. Into paradise. Into amore. You found it at last.
Don Peppe has been under the JFK flight path for just under half a century and I imagine its healing-through-good-old-fashioned-red-sauce-Italian food powers has never wavered.
It is just so entertaining. A ritual for many and a grand surprise for initiates. No reservations, fellow diners congregate in the vestibule and share menu tips. Freshly tanned clientele just off the sand at Rockaway Beach perhaps, the smiles, the glow, the offered affirmations of what you should order and an implicit understanding not to diverge.
So you wait. Hopefully no more than 20 minutes or so although in summer, longer is a possible reality. But as soon as your name is called and you round the corner into ecstasy, it doesn’t matter.
Ahhh. The aroma, the genuine joy pulsating from every table, the real fun is about to begin.
Homemade house wine. Our waiter said – don’t be difficult. No need for the list. And several unmarked icy cold bottles of red later you can see why. It’s twenty bucks a bottle, tastes like you’re in an Umbrian trattoria and gives you a sweet cherry buzz. Done. No upstarts at our table.
There’s a chalkboard menu on the wall with prices reflecting dishes meant for three people. Everything is served family style, the platter size determined by number of diners at the table. Since the waiter serves it up, there’s no muss no fuss. Which translates as…no fighting over the bigger piece. However, it also means the waiter is the only one aware of your total on the check and there have been inconsistencies. Sometimes it seems to be a fairly good deal and other times, it’s eye-poppingly high. Best advice – get a nice waiter.
Our lovely Marco swept his tie behind him in a clearly oft repeated gesture and started serving the salad. Your seemingly garden variety red wine vinegar staple but with roasted red peppers and lots of oregano. Fresh, crunchy and bright.
Onto the next de rigeur dishes. One mighty stuffed artichoke fed four of us happily. Butter, garlic and mushy, comforting bread stuffing. Perfectly cooked artichoke. I was dunked into euphoria.
Stuffed peppers. All the bread crumbs, parsley, garlic and oil a pepper could hope to be adorned with. Perfect combination of sweet bitterness and rich earthiness.
The signature baked clams. They do it beautifully though we thought cherrystone clams might have been better. Blackened with oil and finely finely finely chopped garlic. The char thankfully lingers on your lips. Shells surrounded by puddles of clam juice and butter. Another perfect reason for – yup, more bread.
Diner desire also informs platter size. The table next to us were served a gigantic order of spaghetti with shrimp bolstered by a kind of pink sauce. They couldn’t help but notice our stares and the patriarch nodded, “we get a double order, it’s our favorite.” He leaned in conspiratorially and in a loud raspy brooklyn-eese asked, “are you dunkahs?” Huh? DUNKAHS?? Wait. Ohhh! Yes, yes we are. We dunk. He shrugged and said – “get the Shrimp Luciano, it’s a 10. It’s beyond a 10.” (wonder if he’s seen Spinal Tap?) “Youse will not want to lose a drop of this gravy.” Apparently the linguine with clams is also a 10 but every table around us insisted on the spaghetti with shrimp. For the gravy. Respect. We were in. Vongole next time. But meanwhile, the Luciano is the stuff dreams are made of.
At this point I was practically cut off from the bread tray by Marco our waiter. But it’s impossible not to sop. Sauces are off the hook. Maybe I did need a bread nanny…
The world renowned (okay, Ozone Park famous) Veal Don Peppe. Pounded thin, lightly fried and smothered in chopped fresh tomatoes, peppers and olive oil. One more hallmark dish. A bit like a Veal Milanese with tomato instead of arugula. Like buttah, you can cut it with a fork. There’s a Chicken Don Pepe as well should that be a preference.
Been back many times since my original blog and the Linguine with Clams is now part of the rotation. The white sauce is grand. Butter, oil, lemon and garlic won’t ever lead you astray but you can also ask for the off-menu Marechiare, a pink clam sauce. Al dente pasta, juicy clams and garlic cloves you can almost bench press.
Chicken Scarpariello with added fennel sausage and peppers next. Fabulous sausage. Chicken pieces baked at a super high temperature until crispy. No sauce. Tons of garlic. The accessories are extra but worth the investment.
Lucky for us the next dish was a twice a year special. For me it was the apex of all things Don Peppe. Ricotta & spinach canneloni. It’s only offered on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day weekend. I’ve never been so grateful for a Hallmark card holiday.
This is the Don Peppe version of molecular gastronomy. As if. Pasta as air. So light, the flavors truly seem to burst into song as if from some magical musical of food vibrations. Melt in your mouth quivering Italian air. Velvet on the tongue.
And if you don’t happen to catch the above dish (we never did again), here’s your substitute offering the same crazy-good-what-your-fantasy-Italian-mama-made marinara, this time embedded with ricotta, safely inside their homemade dough. Stuffed Shells. Bring it on.
A little green to counterbalance the carb loading. Beautifully cooked broccoli rabe with sweet nuggets of garlic.
Next time the escarole, fried peppers, lobster fra diavolo with linguine, the not always available grilled portobello mushrooms, a steak, and the Chinese chicken that takes 55 minutes to cook and…and…and. Of course, there’s always more of the same too. It’s hard to not order all the dishes you crave from last time. Maybe don’t eat for a week before you go? 🙂
The unfortunate thing here as one dining companion said, is that the lighting is almost intolerable. You’re at an eating orgy, the homemade wine is flowing, this is too much fun, so you quietly pray to the Madonna for a dimmer. But as oil, salt, and garlic are the holy trinity, we’re sucked back in, say to hell with the glare and keep dunking.
The birthday friend was feted with two desserts, a bisque tortoni and a white chocolate tartufo. Ahh, nothing like a tasty 1950’s suburban style capper to the meal.
We actually closed the place. A rare glimpse of DP at rest.
Wow. A meal well met. A fantastic time. A NYC tradition of the highest order.
Don Peppe…heaven’s back door.
13558 Lefferts Boulevard
Ozone Park, Queens
No reservations, Cash only. Closed Mondays.