At Ornella, you are home

Photos by Bradley Hawks

“Now this is the real fusilli, not like the spiral stuff… this is so much better…” smiled Giuseppe Viterale as he proudly placed the masterpiece on the white linen before me. His deep, melodic voice is as thick and comforting as the Bolognese sauce blanketing the long coils of fresh pasta. Half the joy of dining at Ornella, after all, is having Giuseppe serve you.

As I devour the savory meat sauce and thin, hollow al dente noodles, he points out one of the greatest joys of eating homemade pasta. Since he never uses a machine, each noodle is slightly different in thickness, shape, and texture, making each bite uniquely enjoyable. The fusilli Bolognese is a dish from his hometown that his mother-in-law has made by hand probably thousands of times over the course of her life.

Each and every dish comes with a family story, and there are well over 100 different dishes available in the restaurant any given day of the week, though only a select few are listed on the menu.This is the man who was famous for his contraband supply of casu marzu (worm cheese) as well as his seasonal offering of the legendary sanguinaccio—a chocolate pudding made with fresh pig’s blood, which Giuseppe also uses as a cannoli filling.

Giuseppe’s menu is undeniably the most diverse Italian menu anywhere around. Will he make you chicken parmigiana? Sure. But only because he likes to please each customer, not because it’s a favorite authentic dish.

The signature dish at Ornella is undeniably the imbustata. Italian for “envelope,” the imbustata is a sheet of fresh pasta piled with chicken, veal, mascarpone cheese, spinach, mozzarella and mushrooms, all folded into a tight parcel that is baked in a creamy tomato sauce with a dusting of Parmigiano cheese, like a gigantic ravioli or edge-sealed lasagna. Also, be sure to order the duck meatballs, stuffed with herbs and cheese, and glazed with an orange-brandy reduction.

If you truly want to enjoy what makes this restaurant so incredibly special, simply ask Giuseppe about the dishes inspired by his home in Salerno, Italy. From his father, who ran a flour mill, Giuseppe learned the nuances of making different flours. One of the most exquisite dishes he serves is the pizzoccheri alla fontina, featuring long flat noodles made from buckwheat flour. The hearty pasta ribbons are tossed with tender braised cabbage, golden potatoes, fontina cheese and a touch of garlic and olive oil. The dish is simultaneously light, hearty, decadent, and a playscape of textures and flavors.

The whole restaurant is a tribute to his family and history.

Painted like a quaint Italian street scene, the walls hold signs for various piazzas named after each of his four sons, who also sometimes serve in the restaurant—which is named after his beautiful and effervescent wife, Ornella. In fact, do not be surprised when on your second visit Giuseppe remembers your name. He quite literally treats everyone like family.

Ornella Trattoria Italiana
29-17 23rd Avenue; 1/2 block from Ditmars N/Q station
Open daily from noon to 10 p.m.