By Suzanne Parker
While so many old-school places have given way to newer, trendier cuisines, Don Peppe, that bastion of red-sauce Italian, is still going strong. Whatever their secret, on a recent frigid Wednesday evening the place seemed recession-proof.
The space feels more like a hall than a restaurant. Harried waiters skillfully weave in and out of a brightly lit sea of white linen. The only attempt at interior decoration is a collection of paintings that are of such kitschily Italian subjects, like Venetian scenes and still lifes with pheasants, that they collectively become parodies of the art form.
All the food is served family-style. Sharing is not only encouraged, but expected. The service may be rushed, but the consummately professional waiters are adept at portioning the platters between diners with great aplomb.
The wine list is short: “You want red or white?” When we sought clarification about type, our server elaborated with “bianco or rosso.” The most information we could extract was the word “homemade.” The wine comes in unlabeled bottles, and, its lack of provenance notwithstanding, is very drinkable. Kind of like what you get when traveling in Italy.
No matter what you order at Don Peppe, be prepared to worship the god of garlic. Garlic is a veritable food group here. Just about everything comes laden with plump, golden, lightly sautéed cloves that if raked off into a pile would amount to enough for a side dish.
Baked clams — a mess of little ones, enough for two or more diners — is the starter of choice here. Each clam is nestled in its shell amid gently crisped, buttery crumbs liberally laced with chopped garlic.
Don Peppe has at least as much affinity for clams as it does for garlic, so having the vermicelli with clam sauce—either white or red—shouldn’t be regarded as redundant, even if you started with baked clams. The clams in the white clam sauce were less abundant than the garlic cloves, but the intensity of flavor made up for any scarcity of mollusk.
As an entrée, consider the braciole (pronounced “bra’zhul” by Sicilians). This thinly sliced beef rolled and braised in a powerful tomato sauce is homey but soul-satisfying. The perfect complement is an order of pleasingly bitter escarole or broccoli rabe sautéed with (you guessed it) garlic.
For something a little splurgier, Veal Don Peppe is the only entrée that tops the $30 mark. It is a generous platter of very tender Milanese-style fried veal cutlets topped with diced raw red onions and tomatoes tossed with oil and vinegar and shreds of basil. It’s worth trading up, especially when you consider that you’re sharing.
The Bottom Line
You have to be in the right sort of mood for Don Peppe. Your craving for exceptionally fine old-school red-sauce Italian has to trump your need for certain amenities. You have to not mind the fact that there are no reservations, and prime time on the weekend involves a lengthy wait on a hard bench in a drafty, glass-enclosed anteroom. You have to not mind walking a bit from whatever street parking you can find, although somehow black limos or Town Cars somehow always seem to get lucky right out front. Don’t expect menus. The offerings are posted on the wall. If you can’t see from where you’re sitting, get up and look. And finally, you must remember to bring cash—no plastic accepted here.
135-58 Lefferts Blvd.
South Ozone Park, N.Y. 11420
Price Range: Appetizers $15-20; entrees $17—36, family style, intended for sharing
Cuisine: Southern Italian
Service: Rushed but professional
Hours: Tue-Sat, 4 p.m.-10 p.m.; Sun, 1 p.m.-9 p.m.; Mon, closed
Reservations: Only for parties of ten or more.
Alcohol: Wine and beer
Credit Cards: Fuggedaboudit
Noise level: Noisy
Handicap Accessible: Yes