Everyone seemed to be sitting without their back to the door. I spotted more than one Kangol. Speakers flush with the ceiling projected sounds of mandolins and zampogne that hung in the air with conversations being held in Italian.
I was at Il Colosseo in Bensonhurst, and I hadn't planned on eating sea urchin that night, but the restaurant was running a Pasta Ricci ($18) special and the prep paralleled the rest of the menu in its timeless simplicity.
Il Colosseo has been at the heart of Bensonhurst's Italian neighborhood on 18th Avenue, aka Cristoforo Colombo Boulevard, for 23 years. The classics-driven menu has remained largely unchanged for most of them, and deciding what to order isn't easy. For antipasti, clams are baked, grilled, or served in soup. Octopus is grilled or sautéed. Portobello mushrooms are roasted. There's Calamari Fritti ($11) and year-round Mozzarella di Bufala Caprese ($9.50).
Pasta e Fagioli ($8) seemed like a great idea on a cold night until a server dressed in all black walked by with a plate of all white calamari. The rings, piled high and dressed in fresh olive oil and lemon, had the same reflective sheen of sun rays glistening off a body of water. My friend and I inquired and we ordered an Insalate di Mare ($12) for ourselves. Shrimp and octopus join those rings, and red bell pepper, celery, and parsley throw bright colors onto their blank canvas. Shrimp have their own screaming orange tell for doneness, but the other fish are tended to with more caution, and 23 years in business shows more care than wear.
As for that sea urchin special, a tangle of perfectly cooked spaghetti is coated in a thin layer of tomato sauce. The briny, yellow tongues of uni are dropped into a hot pan that's been taken off the flame. Residual heat warms the roe, proving that there's more to uni than eating it raw.
Colosseo dedicates an entire page of their menu to pizza. With the exception of Rucola, Parmigiano e Prosciutto Crudo ($15) and Frutti di Mare ($14), they're all $12 or less. They're also all founded on pleasantly soft dough, the edges of which char and the bottoms toast in a wood-burning oven, but a slice is a hybrid of sorts between the thin, classic New York style and the pristine squares you get in Gravesend on 86th Street at L&B.
On the Pizza Salsiccia ($10), crumbles of sweet Italian sausage are tender and delicately spiced. Like the sweet tomato sauce and milky mozzarella, an experienced hand applies the right amount so that each piece models the balance of ingredients required for all respectable pizza. Less is more.
That axiom is why chicken breast, pounded to a daunting circumference, can be served with nothing more than mushrooms in a sauce made from Sicily's Marsala wine. The chicken is lightly floured before it's sautéed so the Marsala thickens when it's splashed into the pan. The alcohol burns off and you're left with a savory sauce built around the hot climate fruit that created it.
When a pat of butter is thrown in, the sauce tightens up and sticks to anything it touches. There may be a smear left after the $15 plate of chicken, mushrooms, and wedge of potato are gone. But if that's the case, and you have some of that crusty, Tuscan bread left you got at the beginning of the meal, you'll know what to do.
The plates have a rummage sale charm at Il Colosseo. They're of the dated sort that tells the story of someone's past. In this case it's that of father Lorenzo Mannino and son Giulio who run the place. They welcome any and all to their Italian home away from home in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, and while you'd be wise to pay a visit, there's really no rush. Those plates won't be for sale anywhere anytime soon.