You don't come to a place like Roberto's for creativity or innovation. Instead, you come for well-executed Italian and Italian-American specialties like gravy and ossobuco, served by waiters in honest-to-goodness tie clips and shoes so polished you can check your lipstick.
5:00pm on a Saturday, and the place is packed with families, friends, and couples. At the small bar, people sip red wine and casually tap their feet, waiting for a table and cursing the no reservations policy. Bottles of house-made olive oil, framed pictures of the old country, and wrought iron, Olive Garden-esque sculptures decorate the brick-lined dining room. Ambiance, schmbiance. We're here to eat.
And so we did. We began with the antipasto freddo ($13), a refreshing mix of vinegary disks of fried zucchini, shreds of marinated cauliflower, a forgettable eggplant spread, thin wheels of salami, and triangles of provolone sliding slickly off roasted peppers. A yummy game of good cop, bad cop, in which the cheese's acridness heighten by the peppers' sugariness, a one-two punch we're still thinking on.
Next up, the mozzarella alla caprese ($16), with marinated mushrooms and big black olives. As with the provolone, this cheese is made nearby at Casa della Mozzarella. It was amazing, served at room temperature and chewy just to the point of squeakiness. Two bites, and their ghostly, salty aftertaste had us talking about ready-to-burst rain clouds. Four bites, and we realized that this version is precisely why mozzarella alla caprese appears on menus everywhere.
In terms of entrees, we had every intention of ordering one pasta and one meat, but we got sidetracked by the specials, and wound up with two pastas, both excellent. The orecchiette with grilled lamb ($26) had arugula, cherry tomatoes, yellow peppers, and a hefty scoop of goat cheese. The beautiful combination of color quickly turned into a beautiful combination of tastes and textures: the veggies were alternately candylike and gently acidic, the meat succulent, the pasta perfectly shaped to capture the cheesy olive oil.
From the regular menu, we ordered cavatelli e cavolfiori ($19), a festival of starch sauteed in olive oil and garlic. Bread crumbs became the glue that held together the tiny cauliflower florets and small, precisely rolled tubes. All told, the plate full of pasta must have weighed five pounds; certainly we left five pounds heavier. Two people could easily have split one dish.
Okay, so you could get food similar to this for less money elsewhere in the city. But people don't travel all the way to Belmont to save money. (And don't underestimate the journey—the closest subway stop to the restaurant is a 15-minute walk.) This area of the Bronx, so often called simply "Arthur Avenue," beckons because it conjures the spirit of the mythical and always vanishing "old neighborhood."
What makes an old-school, family-centric restaurant good for a couple is its very sense of familiarity. Perhaps you grew up with a go-to family spot, one where you celebrated practically every milestone you can remember. Or perhaps you'd like to find such a spot with a current paramour, where you might even take your own kids one day. For plenty of diners, Roberto's is just that kind of establishment, consistent and comfortable, a place to pass down. It's best for: a date of mangia-ing and memory-making.
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