My Brother Vinny’s was crowded on that same night. We made reservations but had a short wait in the bar while our table was reset. The restaurant is upstairs in the historic Gaslight Building. There’s a slight clash between the bar’s Old West look (our table was like a display case for Pony Express-themed memorabilia) and the Italian-American feel of the main restaurant. I couldn’t tell which element was responsible for the quirky clotheslines of bloomers and peasant-style shirts in the dining room.
For the last couple of decades, old-school Italian cuisine—by which I mean Italian-American red sauces, lots of garlic and filling standbys—has been eclipsed on the dining scene by upscale regional Italian. Restaurants are hewing closer to Tuscan, say, or Ligurian specialties. But the old school is still very much alive, and the popularity of The Sopranos has brought the Italian-American spaghetti and meatballs of yore back into the Zeitgeist.
My Brother Vinny’s is mostly in that style, though there are a few attempts, mainly with pasta dishes, to bring things into the new age. But you’ll find an antipasto platter, baked pasta dishes like stuffed shells and cannelloni, and the whole parmigiana family: eggplant, chicken and veal. There are also steaks and pizzas.
We skipped the newfangled stuff and went straight to the classics: chicken piccata for my husband and lasagna for me. I was going to have spaghetti and meatballs until I saw that the lasagna, unusually, had meatballs in it and that I would get more cheese in my dinner to boot. Some of the entrees come with soup or salad, and others don’t. With those that don’t, you have the option of a side salad for $1.95. My husband couldn’t resist the appetizer of mussels in a white wine-garlic sauce. Once he’d ordered that, he threw caution to the winds and got garlic bread, too. “Lotta buttah, lotta garlic,” says the menu, and it does not lie. Make sure your companions have some if you do.
I liked the look of the wine list, which features many reasonably priced bottles, with a high proportion available by the glass. My husband perused the drink menu and was intrigued by the Sicilian Slush. Our server described it as containing five fruit juices and two kinds of rum—"so it’s kind of healthy for you.” He was sold, even without the health claims. The drink, when it arrived, was candy-sweet and rummy, but he happily drank it down.
All the food came within about three minutes of our soup and salad’s arrival, lending the service a clumsy air and making it even more like Sunday dinner at an Italian mamma’s. Thank goodness the two of us were seated at a table for four, or there would have been nowhere to put it all. As it was, I moved my soup and other plates around for a couple of minutes before I figured out how to proceed: with the soup first, and then in an orderly fashion with the entree.
I liked my cup of minestrone, which had a nice zest to the broth, plus lots of different beans, including garbanzo, kidney and broad Romano beans. My husband’s salad was a bit plain, but the creamy Italian dressing had a pleasant garlicky kick. The dose of garlic on the plump mussels, however, put the dressing in the shade. Dipping the garlic bread in the buttery sauce made the garlic reach new heights—a foolhardy choice, perhaps, but tasty.
The bowl of mussels was really big enough to serve as a light entree, and our entrees were bigger still. My lasagna was hearty and smothered in bright-tasting red sauce but perhaps slightly overbaked. The promised meatballs (in small pieces for the ease of serving) were nicely flavorful. My husband’s chicken piccata had a great zingy lemon flavor, and fresh Romano beans alongside. The accompanying potatoes were puzzling, though. They seemed like mashed potatoes at the edges, but inside was a big, unmashed and not-quite-tender lump.
We took home most of the entrees for lunch the next day, but we still didn’t pass on dessert. The offerings are classics, such as cannoli, cheesecake, tiramisu and house-made gelato. I was intrigued by one unusual gelato flavor, lemon-cassis. We shared a big sundae glass of that and the vanilla, which came with a nice, crunchy little biscotti. The lemon-cassis was an uninspiring grayish color, but the flavor more than made up for it. It was full of tiny chunks of aromatic lemon peel that lent a complex, haunting flavor. The vanilla was a nice counterbalance, but the texture was a bit icy. Still, the gelato was a pleasant note on which to end the dinner. If you’re craving old-school Italian red sauce or a retro dinner in a retro part of town, give My Brother Vinny’s a try.