As usual, I arrive at Park Side feeling underdressed.
The 30-year-old restaurant doesn't have a dress code per se, and I'm wearing a new button-down and some nice slacks. But the pageantry of the place seems to demand more than nice slacks. As we walk through the dining room, we pass shoulder-padded blouses and broad-breasted suits. Waiters glide by in tuxedos that may also be 30 years old.
Park Side is an Italian-American restaurant in Corona, Queens. It is owned by Anthony Federici of the Genovese crime family, and it's one of the few remaining sources of red sauce fine dining in New York City. It's still immensely popular, commanding waits every night of the week, and reservations are all but required if you want a large party to be taken care of. Mob wealth glints off every finished surface, chandeliers and oversized brooches and string of lights twisted along the walls.
My family took me to Park Side when we wanted to feel fancy and celebratory, on birthdays and mini reunions and good report card nights. Jews in Queens have few native options for big night restaurants, unless you count the kosher Chinese joints like Cho-Sen Garden on 108th Street. So we adopted the Italian places as our own.
I don't know why we started going to Park Side specifically. Likely because it was closer to Forest Hills than Don Peppe's near JFK. Or because of the restaurant's neighbors, Spaghetti Park and the Lemon Ice King of Corona, where we'd spend summer nights licking Italian ices from paper cups while watching the neighborhood alter cockers play bocce. Come for the veal parm, stay for the show.
It's been ten years since I last visited Park Side. I still feel underdressed. But as red sauce in New York is enjoying a moment of post-ironic revival, I want to see how the old place fares.
Our party of eight is politely led through the reception area past the bar, which is paneled in auburn wood and trimmed with leopard print on the chairs. Park Side has three floors of dining rooms, and one of my companions hopes we won't be seated out in Siberia on the third, where he and a date once were stranded with little hope of rescue. We are lucky and stop on the second floor, off the green-carpeted stairwell into the black and tan Marilyn room. Monroe portraits line the walls, which are so dark they suck away light, leaving each table its own illuminated island.
It's a Sunday night, and a quiet one compared to my Park Side memories, when enormous men hugged their tiny wives close while grabbing a drink at the bar. There was more hairspray then, but at least we have some shoulder pads in sight. One with tassles.
Park Side is still a celebration restaurant. On our way upstairs, we hear one table sing happy birthday. Before our bread basket arrives, we hear another. The senior waiters in their tuxedos treat us like guests in the classical sense of the term. Their junior colleagues—uniformed in up-brimmed baseball caps—are unabashedly deferential.
Such hospitality cuts both ways. Like with all fine dining there are rituals to obey, and questions I can't answer: Do I say thank you when my water is refilled or ignore the "invisible" effort? How many questions am I permitted before I've said too much?
After many trips to Park Side I still feel like an outsider, not only with the waiters but with my fellow diners. I don't know all the rules of behavior—none of my Yiddishe family does—so I plod along and ape the moves of people around me, hoping I don't disappoint the staff and clientele who've been playing this game for so long.
The mountain of bread arrives. The waiter places it on the table with two hands, taking care to not topple the lard bread resting precariously on top. That lard bread would have done well in our city-wide tasting, more generously stuffed with moist salami than any I've seen. It does even better with the complimentary antipasti: hunks of aged Parmigiano, sliced sausage, baby bruschetta topped with cherry tomatoes and olive oil.
This first course is fine. The cheese is waxy and dried out at the edges, and the olive oil for the bread is buttery but uninteresting. But the showing of generosity sets us in good spirits. So too does a dram of the housemade wine, which could easily pass for a superior Manischewitz.
When our order comes, it comes all at once. Pastas and seafood and vegetables and a slab of Veal Parm ($21.95), which feeds two to three on its own. That parm tastes just like I remember: tender but firm to the teeth with just a touch of sweet sauce, the fried coating soaked soft with tomato. The mozzarella is heaped on but subtle, as is the seasoning on the meat itself; you could call this an exemplary showing of average veal parm.
We find our pastas agreeably cooked, especially a rich Fettuccine ($17.95) with plump mushrooms and firm Penne in wickedly spicy arrabiata ($17.95). But here's something I don't remember: it's the non-red sauce dishes that are the most fun, like spaghetti soaked in oil that's spent a long dirty night with garlic, or bitter Escarole ($6.95) braised into mellow submission alongside creamy cannelini beans.
There's a whole Stuffed Artichoke ($9.95), the lemony leaves tender enough eat whole, the pork and cheese stuffing rich enough to call pâté. And Hot Cherry Peppers ($6.95) that sting all the way down, as if a Thai cook snuck into the kitchen for a single cameo dish. Shrimp Fra Diavolo ($24.95) and Scungilli ($23.95) are as bland as the parm, and the red sauces veer towards sugary, but we don't mind as long as those peppers stay on the table.
By no stretch of the imagination does Park Side make New York's greatest Italian food, Americanized red sauce or otherwise. The pastas are childish next to Michael White's. I have no doubt that Carbone's $50 veal parm is better. But here I am, ten years later, eating this dinner locked in amber. The meal converges with all my other meals at Park Side, and it's more than a homecoming—it's a return back to a moment in time that repeats and repeats and repeats.
Nostalgia's not everything, so I'm happy to say that the food at Park Side does more than satisfy. It is expected but not tired, generous in spirit, and, at times, unapologetically bold. Are the olive oily vegetable dishes the finest source of vegetarian eating in this part of Queens? Quite possibly.
We pay our $30 a head and bid the place goodnight. It's quiet downstairs now, and though a few tables linger with waiters standing at attention nearby, the dining room could pass for an '80s museum piece. Except that Park Side's not ready to retire. Indeed, it's very much alive—I'm told Gloria Gaynor was dining there that night. I've come back not for a return to something old, but for a visit to a place pulled out of time. Every time I'm here feels like every other time I'm here. I can't go home again, not quite, but I can go back to Park Side.
Park Side is only half the reason I've come. Right across Spaghetti Park is the Lemon Ice King of Corona, where young Italian kids have scooped excellent ices for neighborhood folks for over 60 years. As I do every time, I try something other than the namesake lemon ice, in the vain hope of one day tasting all the stand's 40+ flavors. The peanut butter is as precisely rich and peanutty as I remember. I cave and get a second ice to go, that peerless lemon, one of the very few things in this world that I'll call perfect.
We take our ices to the bocce courts, and sure enough the oldsters are still playing at 11 p.m. They've been playing long into the night, every night, long enough to learn the quirks of the court's dips and divots that send the balls curling in unexpected directions. Lady Gaga's on the radio tonight. That's new. But the colored lights still twinkle above the small park, and cigar smoke weaves its way through the balmy air.
My lemon ice starts to melt and soak through its paper cup. The cherry peppers hiss in the back of my throat. And I know that for another year, this is the night that summer begins.
It's not the first time.