The term “home cooking” is bandied about a lot in the restaurant industry – often a little too loosely. But at Ornella Trattoria Italiana in Astoria, Queens, you can take the claim literally.
Proprietors Ornella and Giuseppe Viterale just opened their restaurant and their menu is based on dishes they both enjoyed growing up in Italy.
Giusseppe was raised on a farm near Salerno. Ornella was born in the south and moved to Torino in the north before coming to the United States. Giuseppe is an architect by trade and Ornella, who works for Pepsi, spent most of her time raising their family of four.
But cooking has always been her passion, and so too, has owning a restaurant. As the children got older, she decided to take the plunge and wisely went with what she knows best – her own cooking.
These dishes aren’t culinary school perfections (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Rather, they are what you might find served in homes from the Italian Alps to the Amalfi coast. In fact, Ornella and Giuseppe, who travel to Italy around twice a year to visit family, often ask neighbors there for their favorite recipes.
What you get is a menu of hearty Italian dishes that are a little bolder than run-of-the-mill “Americanized” Italian restaurants. If you’ve ever been to Italy and eaten the food there, Ornella Trattoria is as close as you can come to the experience outside of booking a trip on Altalia.
The restaurant is located on 23 Avenue in Astoria, and offers a nice change of pace for a Queens neighborhood long known for Greek restaurants. For those who know the area, it’s in the space occupied by the short-lived Samba Grill in the middle of a block of retail stores.
The concept of authentic home cooking is carried over in the restaurant’s décor. The walls are painted a mottled burnt orange-yellow, like the plaster found in so many Italian villages. “We wanted to create the feeling that you were coming over to our house in Italy for dinner,” says Ornella.
The Viterale’s added a nice family touch by painting the names of their children on the walls, and they go out of their way to greet customers as if they were actually coming over to their house for dinner. Giuseppe is there every day and leaps up to greet patrons at the door.
There is always something reassuring about on-the-premise owners who know their way around the kitchen. Good restaurants are all about attention to detail, and with the owner around, you know nothing is going to get overlooked.
Because Giuseppe was raised on a farm, he also knows his way around meat and produce. For example, none of the meat is pre-cut. He buys shanks or sides and butchers them himself. The Viterales also own a farm in upstate New York, from which they hope to supply the restaurant. You can’t get any more assurance on quality than that.
For dinner, we started with a red wine and requisite bruschetta on toasted garlic Italian bread. The chopped tomatoes with garlic, basil, olive oil and vinegar were zesty and the bread did not crumble, a small detail that suggests some attention was paid when it was made.
The antipasti include all of the basics, and range in price from $8 to $10. The gamberi e fagioli, (broiled shrimp , cannellini beans, garlic, rose-mary tomatoes and olive oil) is a highlight. Also the vongole all’oreganata, (baked, breaded little neck clams with garlic, parsley, lemon zest and lemon) were tangy yet did not overpower.
Outside of seafood, there is carpaccio di manzo (smoked tenderloin of beef, arugula, hearts of palm, shaved parmesan cheese and white truffle oil); sauteed broccoli and asparagus dishes and a well-executed caprese con peperoni (imported Buffalo Mozzarella, sliced tomatoes, roasted peppers and basil).
Widely served entrees are always a good standard to measure against, and what Italian restaurant doesn’t serve linguine alle vongole? Ornella’s pasta dish with little neck clams includes a white wine sauce with olive oil, fresh herbs, roasted garlic and chilies.
What separates this dish, again, is its zest. Ornella doesn’t hold back on the garlic, but that’s to be expected in authentic Italian food. (Incidentally, she only buys whole garlic cloves; never chopped for better flavor).
Veal is prominent on the menu and the vitello pantelleria caught our eye, because the veal is served in a white wine sauce with artichokes and Sicilian caper berries, an unusual combination that worked well.
Veal medallions also are available with exotic wild mushrooms, red wine, truffle oil and herbs (vitello boscaiola), in classic style with fior di latte mozzarella and grated parmesan cheese or Milanese style, breaded with tomato, baby arugula salad and a sherry vinaigrette.
A milk-fed grilled veal chop with roasted garlic and rosemary (costoletta ai ferri) is the most expensive entrée on the menu at $25. Also topping the menu are a grilled rack of lamb (agnello grigliato) and a grilled, marinated, aged T-bone steak with thyme and mint leaves.
Signature deserts include a chocolate mousse cake, a tiramisu made according Ornella’s own family recipe and Italian cheesecake. The latter departs from others because it is made with ricotta. It’s flavorful, but much lighter without the dense, chalky consistency of traditional cheesecake.
The restaurant is also open for lunch and includes a special for $11.95 that includes an antipasto (three salad choices, or a soup of the day) and a main course the includes a choice of three pastas, a breaded chicken dish and broiled samon.
A menu’s entrees, Giuseppe likes to point out, should be like the seven keys on a piano scale. You should be able to play them in any combination to get what you want, and the restaurant is open to suggestions from patrons who want to customize dishes.
Although Ornella Trattoria Italiana had only been opened a short time when we visited, this is the kind of restaurant destined to become a neighborhood fixture for anyone who wants “real” Italian home cooking. If that’s you, save the airfare to Italy and make the trip to Astoria, where you will be greeted like an old friend returning home to Napoli.
Ornella Trattoria Italiana
29-17 23 Avenue
Astoria, New York,