Naturally, as a food tour guide, the most common question I receive is: What's your favorite restaurant? To which I usually just laugh and shake my head and say: That's a pretty impossible question to answer. In a city with over 20,000 restaurants throughout the 5 boroughs. And then I implore further: What neighborhood? What's my budget? What time of year? Who am I with? What time of day/week? What am I in the mood for? But they're usually asking for a reason and I can often supply some sort of answer for them.
However impossible the question feels to answer, everyone who works in food has their own home hub. A place or two they can depend on to meet all of their needs regardless of the time of year. I've decided that I would begin to highlight some of these places. Those where I'd go for a special celebration or just to get out of the house and have a drink or a bite with good company. They're places that I enjoy going to myself and have zero qualms about sending friends, family and strangers their way. And there's no one better place to start with than my favorite Italian eatery around the corner from me: Bettolona.
I've lived in my apartment now for over 9 years. When I first moved in, the food and drink options were rather limited, but I didn't feel it was too bad that I constantly had to leave the 'hood in order to dine out. There were a couple of good Italian restaurants, including one that's managed by an old friend of my mother's. A good, casual and affordable Cuban joint: Floridita. We also have Toast...which may find itself on another one of these posts, soon. Not to mention, I'm just a couple blocks from the popular upstate import: Dinosaur BBQ. But the scene has changed quite a bit, since that time. With Columbia's expansion headache happening around the corner, the number of restaurants and the variety of their offerings has changed quite a lot in the last 3-5 years. But just before that madness began, a daring duo of Italian men invested in a space that had a very troubled past, but they were determined to change that, and in the late summer/early fall of 2010, they made 3143 Broadway their home.
I would say that any place that a food professional can remember their first taste of, must be important! And I remember the first time I stepped into Bettolona, vividly. I had spent the day doing something I truly dislike--shopping. After getting off the subway, I was tired and overwhelmed and I had no desire to do any cooking, but I was craving some freshly made pasta, so I decided to grab a bottle of wine to stick in the fridge as I dropped off my new belongings at home before stepping back out to that nearby Italian joint I mentioned above, Pisticci, where I'd have some pasta and a glass of wine before heading back home to my trusty couch. As I made my way to the restaurant I knew, I caught this new joint that I hadn't been to, and as I started scanning the menu, one of the owners, who I later discovered to be named Sebastiano, came out to talk me into stepping inside. He wasn't like one of those guys on the streets of old Little Italy--you know, shoving a plastic-covered menu in your face, dressed like a stereotypical character from a bad black and white movie. He was charming, with a hint of a truly Italian accent, and he was honest about the fact that they didn't yet have a liquor license. Sadness came over my face. "Well, there's a liquor store just on the corner" he informed me. I knew, but I just bought a bottle and I was too lazy/tired to walk back home and get it. "Where do you live?" he asked, and with shame I replied: "around the corner, but I've just been shopping all day, and I'm over it." The unswerving Italian man then offered a solution after confirming that I liked Malbec. "Well, I was going to buy a bottle of Malbec myself, so why don't I do that and I'll share a glass with you?" Free wine? Charming Italians? Fresh pasta? Sold!
After sitting at the end of the bar, I reviewed the simple, classic menu and wanted to try a variety of things, but went with the Polpette (meatballs) to start and the Gnocchi with cheese and tomato sauce as my main. When Sebastiano returned with the wine to share, he summoned over his partner, Sandro, whom I never would have guessed would become like family to me. Sebastiano poured us some wine, and we toasted and spoke briefly until he had to attend to greeting more guests and soon my food arrived. At the time this meatball appetizer was more like a tomato sauce soup with a couple of large meatballs that were accompanied by some bread made from their pizza dough--did I mention the wood-fired oven? The sauce was delicious and the meatballs were quickly devoured, however I found myself filling up on bread and sauce before my pasta even arrived, and I thought that perhaps this was not the wisest way to serve the dish. So, when Sebastiano checked in again I told him as much--not in a bad way, just as a way to offer an opinion from someone who eats food a lot (mind you, however, this was before I made a profession of doing such). Soon it became clear, that we would be sharing the whole bottle of Malbec, as Sebastiano continued to pour me more than just a glass. My gnocchi came out, shortly after my sauce bowl was cleared, and it looked absolutely delightful, and as I began to dig in, I knew that this was exactly what I wanted, and probably what I needed. They were the perfect little nuggets of fluffy potato pasta with just the right amount of bite, and little discs of melted mozzarella cheese were draped over the tomato-basted bites. Between the food, wine and ambiance I had a good feeling I was home.
After getting to know Sebastiano and Sandro a little more, I found them to be longtime restaurateurs who truly had a love for the business. And that this particular venture was like the little sister to Sebastiano's main resto, just a little south of here, Bettola. Sandro was actually the managing partner and could now easily be considered the face of Bettolona. Perhaps even the face of the small Italian community that's here, in West Harlem. I watched the two as they charmed the guests who came in and interacted with the public that was just out and about. The thing about New York City is that each neighborhood has it's own way of operating. There are some nabes where you can stick any kind of restaurant and it will succeed if it's the right price and decent service, others require a reputation of cool in order to be accepted, but then there's a place like Manhattanville, which begs you to embed yourself into the community. Money isn't pouring out of our pockets, so slipping in an overpriced Serafina isn't gonna cut it--they tried, just ask them. Not only should you be selling a high-quality product that you're good at making, but you need to be kind to all of your neighbors, provide good service and give us a reason to choose you over your competitors. For Bettolona, the flirty Italian men are definitely apart of the draw for many residents. They also hire within the community--both the neighborhood community and the Italian transplant community--again bringing in more folks looking for good conversation over good wine--when the eventually did get their license, they were sure to always stock great value Italian reds AND whites.
I don't remember the details of my second visit, except that I brought my parents for the first time, and curious to see whether they'd followed my advice about the meatballs and sauce, ordered it to share. Good news: they had! A restaurant that can make a change like this certainly seemed to have much more promise than any of the other operations that occupied the space prior.
Over the years, I've brought friends, family, fellow tour guides, and even a date--one time, but only because I wasn't very serious about him. Sandro's just too much of a flirt for a new relationship. Some of my memories there include birthday parties, watching soccer with fellow footie fans, lots of laughter and even some tears. I can't forget the time I met a friend for brunch and wound up staying through dinner when I parents came to join me...and then left me to continue hanging with my buddies until closing. After being stood up in a winter storm in Astoria, I had my friend Dennis, meet me at Bettolona to record his podcast. When I broke my ankle, and wasn't able to work for several months, Sandro assured me that I never needed to worry about being hungry as long as he was around. When I began to host a silly show in his residential neighborhood of Astoria, Queens he came out and brought a whole crew with him--impressing the venue with the bottles of wine they purchased. And after he saw the show, he insisted that we put together a show at the restaurant, and so for my 35th birthday, that's exactly what I did. Obviously, a lot of these examples, go beyond the scope of what I would expect in a typical restaurant. But, if I'm going to dedicate a whole post to a place, then I want to show off all that makes it magical.
Sandro knows how to run a restaurant. He lives in a world where hospitality is a given. When I began to study hospitality, it was because I had been touched by a place that gave me the immediate sense of that third place. That's what I've experienced every time I've gone to Bettolona, a return to home. And that is why they're one of my favorite restaurants in the city. The food is always good, the wine is always flowing, and Sandro is always smiling. So, come join us, next time you're uptown! And look out for us as we all take this city by storm and wine :)