Writer Calvin Trillin famously said, "Anybody who doesn't think that the best hamburger place in the world is in his home town is a sissy."
Swap out Italian restaurant for hamburger place and the sentiment still holds water. For as long as I've been covering food, complete strangers have been counseling me on "the city's best Italian restaurant," which invariably sits down the block from their home. Every hamlet's got at least one red-sauce joint that dishes up heaping portions of rib-sticking fare that could go apron-to-apron with Nonna. One of the restaurants that habitually comes up is Pepper's, which turns 20 years old next year. Two visits later I'm reminded that user experiences may vary.
Few cuisines have the ability to satisfy so thoroughly, so purely as Italian-American, an ethnic comfort food for the masses. You know what's on the menu before you ever step foot inside, and half the fun is mapping out a journey that ends, invariably, with equal parts glee and regret for what we managed to pack away.
First impressions at Pepper's are encouraging, with warm welcomes and intoxicating aromas of garlic filling the air. For a first-timer, little lifts the spirit and boosts the confidence like a packed house, and Pepper's is always full. Granted, "full" tops out at about 30 guests squeezed like anchovies into a diminutive dining room. Do as the locals and order a beer or glass of wine to help pass the time while you wait in the tiny vestibule for your table. It's then and there that flashes of skepticism begin to nibble away at the reverie. Sure, it's just decoration, but faded plastic grape vines, a dust-covered ceiling fan, and aged window air conditioner units with dangling cords don't do much to kindle the appetite.
At its best, Italian-American is unfussy cooking that transforms a few humble but high-quality ingredients into more than the sum of their parts. At its worst, it's an order of breaded zucchini sticks ($9) that get dumped from freezer bag to deep fryer. Inside the crunchy but bland shell is a watery, mushy paste that might as well have been okra. When the breaded sliced eggplant ($7) was recommended to us on a subsequent visit, we gave it a chance, only to face the same disappointing results.
Trial and error (and error) rewarded us with sausage pizzaiola ($10), a warm skillet loaded with sliced and sauteed Italian sausage, onions and bell peppers. Making tasty little sandwiches with the house rolls and the accompanying marinara is about as close to Little Italy as one will get here. The garlic bread ($6) consists of soft Italian bread enrobed in melted cheese, nothing more, nothing less.
Service here is fun-spirited, intimate and informal, with waiters copping a squat in a booth alongside regulars to scribble down an order. In a small space like this it's impossible to overlook how eager, earnest and efficient the team is. Bottles of wine appear and are uncorked with proficiency. Expect markups on the largely budget selections to exceed 300, and even 400, percent over wholesale.
When our server announced that the night's special was gnocchi, we asked if it was made in house. No, was the answer. When our server rattled off a list of salad dressings, we posed the same question and received the same answer. That became clear when our salads arrived with small plastic ramekins of commercial dressings that were so viscous from thickeners that they were difficult to pour. How hard is it to make a little vinaigrette?
Some highlights from the menu include the lasagna ($17), a corpulent stack of noodles, meat, cheese and sauce baked in a skillet and delivered hot and bubbly. In an effort to stretch a buck, perhaps, the kitchen doubles up on the noodles — a pair for every layer —which sends the ratio out of whack. The breading on the chicken Parmesan ($19) had long since lost its crackle and crunch, but the portion was robust and the flavors familiar and pleasant. All the pastas, from the included side of spaghetti that came with the Parm to a bowl of penne pesto, were plucked from the water at just the right moment.
A wide crock of mac and cheese with "langostino lobster" ($15) has a luscious, creamy texture and crispy bread topping. But the seafood was arranged on top, likely in an effort to advertise its presence, and dried out in the broiler. Langostino, by the way, has nothing to do with lobster.
What irked us most was a brief exchange with the owner one night while we were waiting for our tab. When he visited the table and asked how everything was, I noticed him glance down at the fried zucchini that had lingered untouched since the start of our meal. I responded, "mostly fine," and gestured to the appetizer. And then the check came, zucchini and all.