Last week, I watched a bulldozer smooth over the surface of the northwest corner of 51st Street and Main. A red-brick building that had stood there was obliterated after supposedly surviving a century on that very spot — the place at 5044 Main where, for 23 years, jovial Joe Accurso had operated his namesake Italian restaurant.
Over the years, Walt Bodine and other people have told Accurso that some kind of restaurant had occupied that plot since 1905. I once tried to verify this by hunting through old city directories from the first years of the 20th century. Frankly, it's hard to find any reference to anything on this block until right before World War I. Still, Accurso's felt old — really old. The main room, long and dark and narrow, was dominated by a bar. It was always too busy, too noisy. Up a few steps was a rambling collection of little rooms, all decorated with framed photographs of the Accurso family dating back to Giuseppe Accurso. The stocky patriarch emigrated from Sicily during the early 1900s — at about the same time that my own grandfather, fed up with being poor, was also getting the hell out of there. Five million Southern Italians arrived in America between 1880 and 1920.
Joe Accurso serves the kind of food that grew out of the Sicilian-American culinary repertoire, including a sweet, red tomato marinara. I know there's a little sugar in it because my own grandmother added a pinch or more to hers. It's a custom that may date back to the old country (chef Jasper Mirabile Jr. has seen Southern Italians sprinkle sugar on fresh tomatoes), but as we all know, Americans love sugar in just about anything.
Anyway, the new Accurso's Italian Restaurant, which opened two months ago in a sleek, glass-paned building a block north at 4980 Main, is a big, noisy box with high ceilings, shiny concrete floors, and sexy light fixtures that look like handblown versions of those little gold corno amulets which some paisanos wear around their necks to ward off the evil eye. The new place couldn't be more different from the old one. Accurso has hung all the old family photographs across two walls but has also added a big flat-screen monitor that rotates big images of those photos throughout the evening.
If this new dining room and bar lack the cluttered, eccentric charm of the old restaurant, the food, I'm happy to say, is still comforting, hearty and generous. In fact, now that Accurso has a real kitchen — the cooking space in the old joint wasn't much bigger than a closet — the fare comes out faster, hotter and more visually appealing.
Not everyone loves the new Accurso's. ("It's cold and sterile," whines a friend of mine.) But I've eaten there four times now, and Joe must be doing something right because the place is always packed — with big groups of friends, families (and more than a few screaming bambinos), college kids, snooty society types, gays and lesbians, business suits — just like at the old Accurso's.
The lure is food that isn't fancy or complicated. Dinners include a salad and not-too-garlicky garlic bread, while the only entrées that cost more than 20 bucks are the steaks and seafood linguini.
Dishes I don't like at other restaurants or those I'm bored by, such as calamari, I'll eat without complaint at Accurso's. Here, the calamari is excellent: lightly breaded, not a bit greasy, gorgeously crunchy. It's served with the sweet marinara my fussy friend Carrie, a true food snob, grudgingly admitted that she liked (but not before insisting it needed more oregano).
I had a terrific lunch one afternoon with Carrie and her mother, Judy. Both women raved about the consistency and spiciness of the Italian sausage, which Accurso makes himself from his father's recipe. "It's as smooth as silk," Judy said, "not a bit of gristle, not a heavy hand on the fennel."
Goaded by Carrie, I ordered a chicken Parmesan sandwich. I wouldn't normally be interested in such a dish, but the chicken was lightly breaded, surprisingly moist and served on a toasted ciabatta roll. It was fantastic, as were the homemade potato chips.
I dined one night with Debbie and Bob when the restaurant was so noisy, I could barely hear myself think. But the pasta diavola, penne tossed in a punchy tomato-cream sauce, made up for any annoyance. I took most of it home (alas, it's not so good cold) because I had overindulged, in a big way, on fat slabs of buttered, toasted Italian bread, dipping it in marinara and finishing every spoonful from a big bowl of hot and lusty minestrone soup.
Bob and Debbie gave high marks to the ice-cold salads, served on chilled plates and drenched in a superb balsamic vinaigrette. And Bob raved over the chicken amogio (called amogia here), slathered in a supple Sicilian marinade of olive oil, lemon juice, butter and herbs. I've also eaten the grilled-salmon version of this dish and concluded that it's one of the most delectable ways to eat such a bland, meaty fish. Deb, who prefers vegetarian fare, was pleased with the simple variation on pasta primavera: linguini thrown together with sautéed squash, broccoli, onion and peppers in basil, garlic and olive oil.
There's only one dessert on Accurso's menu that I can't resist: the satiny cheesecake that his mother, Mary, still bakes for the restaurant. I like it better plain, without that topping of strawberry purée or whatever the hell they splash on it, because I like the contrast of the rich cheesecake with a cup of strong coffee or espresso. But I shared a wedge, strawberries and all, with Kimberlee one night, and she was practically swooning after two bites. "But that's because I had the fettuccine Alfredo for dinner," she told me. "It's way too much heavy cream to take at one sitting."
She was right. The food here is rich and heavy, and the portions are ridiculous. If I had taken one more bite of anything, I would have needed that bulldozer still parked up the street to lift my body back to my car.
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