The smell starts on the subway platform: someone is cooking Sunday dinner, a rich mix of basil and breadcrumbs. Once inside, La Palina looks like the formal dining room of a country club, with tablecloth-covered four tops packed beneath lowly lit, faded paintings of young women and curly-haired men reclining on couches and eating olives. While the menu says Neapolitan, the pronunciation—and atmosphere—of this Italian restaurant in Bensonhurst are 100 percent old-school Italian-American.
Chilled from the walk, we started with pasta e fagiole ($7). "Pahst e fazool," our waiter repeated back, and instantly we saw Carmela fixing a plate for Tony. Out came a soup so thick we ate most of it with a fork, just cannellini beans and shreds of firm pasta in a creamy tomato broth, with a lone leaf of basil for contrast. The soup was a study in warm agreeability, guaranteed to neither offend nor arouse.
Next, the mozzarella en carozza ($7), two cheese sandwiches with a side of biting tomato sauce. We now know for next time: mozzarella can be "mutz" or "moozer." According to an axiom dear to moms and college kids everywhere, you can't really go wrong with slapping cheese on bread and cooking. So what makes this one so special? First, the bread stayed firm, the cheese chewy, unlike so many greasy, soggy messes masquerading as grilled cheese. Second, it worked appetizer magic, simultaneously quelling our hunger and getting us pumped about the next course.
Lured by the "homemade" label on the menu, we ordered the manicotti ($11). (And yes, the server corrected our pronunciation to "manigot.") Like the cheese sandwiches, this dish couldn't have been simpler: mozzarella stuffed into a sleeve, topped with the same sharp tomato sauce, and baked for a while. A good option for the toothless, as the heat rendered everything soft.
As our second entree, a special of the evening and throwback to 1950s, when La Palina had already been opened for 20-something years: chicken Rockefeller ($22). Pounded flat and lightly dipped into breadcrumbs, the chicken breasts were then smothered in roasted red peppers, spinach, mozzarella, and bacon, and all that was covered in a Marsala sauce. "You won't be disappointed," our server promised, and he was right. Years ago, a woman might have looked forward to this dish while getting her hair sprayed and nails painted, a man while putting on his cuff links. If it had a whiff of mustiness, no matter—we couldn't deny its fatty, gooey appeal.
Next to us, an elderly couple squabbled. Countering his wife's suggestion for an appetizer, the husband said, "Artichoke? That's no food." Across the dining room, a party of 20 kissed goodbye. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, La Palina offers three courses for $23, and another three-course menu on Fridays for $28.
Toward the end of our meal, another waiter came over to chat. He mentioned that lately the place had been attracting young people from Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and "even Dumbo," much to his happiness. "Most of our clients have been with us for years," he said. "It's good eats, you know, nothing fancy." Agreed. La Palina is best for: a date that makes you feel like family.