235 Mulberry Street, New York, NY 10012 (b/n Prince and Spring Streets; map); 212-965-0500
Service: Casual but attentive
Setting: Skinny, narrow space with barrel-vaulted ceilings, distressed wooden tables, old-timey photos, and a long, attractive bar
Compare It To: Frankie's 457, Nick's,
Must-Haves: Vodka pizza, lasagna, spaghetti alla Chitarra, meatballs, sfogliatelle
Cost: Pizza, lasagna, and sfogliatelle (the ideal meal at Rubirosa) will set you back $50/person
A few decades ago in New York, the pizzeria/restaurant (let's call it pizzeria cuisine) reigned supreme. Cairo's was Ed's go-to place for (what he remembers as) excellent thin-crusted pizza; Italian-American lasagna with no claims to authenticity, only deliciousness; and hubcap-sized plates of chicken parmigiana that came with an order of (definitely not al dente) spaghetti with marinara on the side.
Fast forward to 2011, and the red sauce tradition has devolved to the likes of Carmine's, where there is no pizza and quantity trumps all, and Mario's on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, where at dinner you are discouraged from ordering the excellent pizza because the owners want diners to experience the more ambitious food on the menu.
Coming to our rescue, and to restore the good name of pizza cuisine, is Rubirosa. It's straight outta Staten Island, where chef and co-owner Angelo "A.J." Pappalardo learned the pieman's craft starting at age twelve in his dad's legendary (and still going strong) pizzeria Joe and Pat's. He then started cooking at Esca and Circo; and now, he's met up with chef buddy Al Di Meglio (who also worked at Circo and the short-lived Olana) to launch Rubirosa. And it's in Manhattan's Little Italy, no less—which has degenerated into a tourist destination, populated by less than stellar restaurants which resort to the use of hawkers on the sidewalks to lure customers.
Anyone familiar with Joe & Pat's will instantly recognize the pizza at Rubirosa. It is a carbon copy of its Castleton Corners forbear, where A. J. began working at age 12. A patchwork of good-quality fresh mozzarella covers a bright-red swath of slightly sweet crushed tomatoes -- all atop an ultrathin crust that is crunchy at the edges but gives way to a crisp and pliant middle.
Like a proper Sunday Gravy in miniature, the rich, savory tomato sauce of the Beef Braciole ($8) is the best part of the skillet. The braciole itself is tasty, if slightly dry (is braciole ever not slightly dry?). The Baked Clams ($12) are similarly straightforward: no reinventing the wheel here, just briny clams with a buttery, lemony topping of a few too many bread crumbs. And of three Bruschetti ($2.50 each), the meatball, with plenty of sharp Parmigiano, was excellent: like a perfect two-bite meatball sub.
We preferred such dishes to the Rice Balls ($9); they were hot and crisp enough with a creamy center, but they lacked flavor, making us wonder why we'd just paid $9 for some pretty plain rice. And though we enjoyed the Rubirosa Salad ($10), we were thrown by its description of "country bread, tomato, basil, mozzarella"—we were expecting something more like a panzanella. Instead, we got mixed greens with celery, cucumber, tomatoes, mozzarella, and croutons.
Things get more exciting when the entrees show up. The Lasagna Napoletana For Two ($23) is no delicate, cheffy creation; here the pasta is rolled thick and stuffed with a ton of cheese and sausage bound in a bright tomato sauce. It's homey, retro-red sauce fare, with a hint of irony and no apologies. Large enough to easily feed three, it's one of the best deals, and one of the best dishes, on the menu.
Along the same lines, the Chicken Parmigiana ($18) was a hubcap-sized plate of pounded fried chicken covered in sauce and melted mozzarella cheese—a pretty awe-inspiring sight. The chicken was moist, and the sauce was good, but we found that the gigantic cheese blanket ended up weighing down the dish too much; the best part of the dish (and perhaps the entire meal): the side of house-made Spaghetti alla Chitarra that comes with it.
Those red-sauce dishes proved to be the standouts; we found the braised boar meat on the Gnocchi ($17 or $26) a little out of place next to a gigantic Chicken Parmigiana, but the gnocchi were properly light and fluffy.
Classic desserts are, again, better than you'd find at neighboring restaurants. Zeppole—Italian donuts—can range in texture from ultra light and eggy to chewy and breadlike. Fried to order and tossed in powdered sugar, these ones were firmly on the bready side, with a crisp shell and a pleasantly chewy crumb. Better, though, is the Sfogliatelle; they take 15 minutes to bake to order, but the wait is worth it. Thousands of layers of hot, crisp, flaky pastry form the crust. At Rubirosa they forgo the traditional Italian ricotta-based filling, instead using a pastry cream; it's an homage to the Italian-American bakery tradition.
With stellar Joe and Pat's-style pizza, house-made, properly al dente pastas, and tangy, gooey lasagna that's the stuff of Italian grandmotherly dreams, Pappalardo and Di Meglio have succeeded brilliantly. Though the food can go slightly off the rails at Rubirosa when they get too fancy and ambitious, overall this is a restaurant that any Italian grandmother would be happy to call her own—and a restaurant any New Yorker should be happy to have back in Little Italy.