Gene's Restaurant must prep money in addition to pastas and proteins in its kitchen in the West Village. Somehow nine bucks nets you overflowing bowls of traditional food, served by waiters in shoulder-padded suit coats and ties, in one of New York's priciest neighborhoods. Linen covers the tables, linoleum the floor. This Italian restaurant opened in 1919. Any minute Jimmy Durante might walk through the door, humming "Inka Dinka Doo," a miracle on West 11th.
The antipasto Italianne ($8.95) burst with bright freshness, a buffet of cold salads and chilled cheese, of pickled vegetables and cured meats. We poured the olive oil all over everything, then fashioned edible edifices with chunks of the abundant bread. Particularly good were the roasted red peppers coated in capers.
Next, a bed made from baked ziti ala Siciliana ($8.95). The soft ziti made the mattress, topped with a blanket of mozzarella. Nestled between and among were bits of mushroom and meat. Eggplant too, it seemed, but so small were these ingredients that we had a hard time telling them apart. Maybe we were just tired, but this seemed a dish to put you to sleep, not because it lacked flavor but because it was filling and wholesome.
A ragù doused the rigatoni matriciana ($8.95). The guanciale--pork jowl bacon--had been liberally peppered before cooking, while the tomatoes had perhaps been taken on a tour of the sugar bowl. Overall the sauce was sweet with heat. Gene's isn't about firecrackers or in-your-faceness; plenty of restaurants have that territory firmly covered. Instead, it serves simple food, recognizable from grandma's kitchen or what we think we know about the way things used to be, thanks to movies and TV.
The fried zucchini ($3.95) looked and felt like flexible fingers, bending as they did on their way from plate to mouth. Once there, they turned slightly salty and watery. After dipping them into the salsa-like red sauce, we stopped missing the crunch, started enjoying Gene's version, and focused on the huge plateful. We had work to do.
Combined, we probably still didn't meet the average age of the rest of the patrons. The mirrored wall, the paintings (spotlit and impressionist-ish), and the historical-artifact menu aren't for everyone. But if you're tired of irony and culinary reconstruction and just want modestly priced and well-prepared food in an atmosphere your grandmother would call "nice," here's your place. No restaurant can stick around New York for 92 years without doing a thing or two well. With its firm stake in a nearly vanished Italian-American tradition, Gene's is best for: a date with a fellow nostalgist.