Gino’s of Lexington Avenue? This restaurant was one of the most special restaurants that ever was. Ask any of the few hundred regulars who ate there so many times a year. How many you ask? Well, there are regulars who ate there 2 to 3 times a week, some once a week, some one or two times a month, and some maybe four to six times a year, but all regulars. That’s how it goes with regulars in restaurants, and this is a solid foundation that all good restaurants need to succeed in New York. Gino’s had a pretty long history for its regulars to enjoy for any number of years. The restaurant opened in 1945 by Gino Circiello and two partners, was in operations for 65 until it closed in 2010 after losing their lease. Needless to say this was a sad day for all its devoted regulars which included the likes of; Gay Talese, David Suskind, Frank Sinatra, many luminaries along with numerous businessmen and women, and people in the fashion business, publishing, law, and all sorts of businesses. Gino’s customers loved and revered the place, a wonderful Italian Red Sauce Joint where you could get a great meal of solid Italian classic dishes, at reasonable prices, with good service and a perfect ambiance that included one of New York’s last remaining telephone booths and the famed Zebra wallpaper. And it was the clientele that really made the perfect ambiance that was Gino’s, which was par excellence.
Gino’s was filled to capacity each day and night for lunch and dinner, jammed with people doing business, or just simply having a great time eating Baked Clams Oreganta followed by Linguine w/ Clam Sauce, Chicken or Veal Parmigiano or perhaps a daily special like Veal Ossobuco or braised Lamb Shanks, the food was always good at Gino’s, everything was. The people just loved it there. The vibe was always great, lively and full of life, that was Gino’s.
There was Gino and later on Michael Miele (a former employee who became the owner), there was of course the Zebra Wallpaper, the old-school waiters, the tasty food, and the clientele themselves that filled the air of Gino’s dining room with good natured chatter and that special feeling that a room full of happy people makes. And you were always more than happy when you were in Gino’s.
Yes, Gino’s was a restaurant that’s now known as an Old School Red Sauce Joint. This being a restaurant that had pretty much the same standard dishes that so many people love, millions in fact. The menu had items like; Caprese Salad, Baked Clams, both Casino and Oreganata, Seafood Salad, Spaghetti w/ Tomato Sauce, or Bolognese, Manicotti, Ravioli, and Gino’s famous Pasta Segreto with their famed Secret Sauce. You had all the most popular chicken, fish, and veal dishes, dishes like; Chicken Parmigiano, Veal Saltimbocca, Veal Piccata, Veal Milanese (Sinatra’s favorite), Shrimp Scampi, Clams Posillipo another Sinatra favorite, Lobster Fra Diavolo and the sort of solid Italian food that Italian-Americans and the rest of their American brethren all loved and still love, regardless of what snobbish food critics may say or think. For Gino’s clientele knew what was real, and Gino’s was as real as it got. If you asked Frank (Sinatra) he’d set you straight, “Gino’s is the Real Deal Baby.”
Well, so sadly, Gino’s closed in 2010. It was a sad day indeed, and for regulars an actual tragedy, we lost our favorite clubhouse of all. A place that was so special and uniquely wonderful you just can’t replace. Yes a sad day indeed. Gino’s was irreplaceable, it’s a sin that it died, never-the-less it did. This was a crime, a crime against New York, Italian-America and Gino’s many devoted fans. If you knew Gino’s you’d surely agree.
Yes, even Gino’s a historical Old School Italian joint came to an end and died, a fate happening all over the country. We’re losing our wonderful beloved Red Sauce Joints. Places that are a part of American history, the history of Italian-America and even of Italy, as it was the citizens of our motherland who came here and created Italian-American Cuisine and Red Sauce Joints like our beloved Gino’s and other restaurants just like it all over America. Farewell to Gino’s and places like Rocco’s in Greenwich Village and all of our famous red sauce joints of years gone by.
Now hold on a minute. Yes we’ve lost many a great red sauce joints in the past years, and even still. But guess what? With places like Frankie’s Spuntino and Carbone in Greenwich Village, Red Sauce are now hip and as beloved as ever. They’re among one of the hot new restaurant and food-trends of most recent years. Unfortunately, Carbone is very expensive. Frankie’s on the other hand is not, it’s quite reasonable and in the true spirit of Old School Italian-American restaurants. Let’s hope this trend continues and instead of so many flashy restaurant that are not in the spirit of old school Italian-America, we need to get more restaurants like Frankie’s and Rubirosa. And if we’re lucky some day, maybe someone will open another Gino’s complete with all the old dishes like Pasta Segreto and the Scalamandre Zebra Wallpaper of course, of which Gino’s would not be Gino’s. Gino’s we miss you so.
So now it’s a sad state of affairs when we talk of these wonderful old Red Sauce Joints of our lives. We’ve had many good time there; family dinners, meals with friends, and courting and such. These places provide the perfect ambiance with great food, wine, and the animated waiter or two. But sadly not many are left. As you know, we lost Gino’s a few years ago and numerous good old restaurants before that. In Manhattan where I live it doesn’t even take the fingers of one had to count how many old Italian Red Sauce Joints are left. There’s Rao’s up in East Harlem, one of the all-time great new York City old-school Italian Restaurants with just the right ambiance and wonderful old-school Italian food, but guess what, you can’t get in. The place is sort of an exclusive club where people have a table reserved once a week and there’s never any opening, unless you know one of these elite in the know people, just Fuggetabout-it!
So there’s Rao’s up in East Harlem, Patsy’s in mid-town, and John’s of East 12th Street down in the East Village. John’s opened in 1908 and is still in business. Not only is it still in business, but the place has been wonderfully preserved and retains its original décor from 1908, the old tile floor, murals of Italian Cities and places like Venice, Rome, The Bay of Naples, and more. They still have the original bar and autographed pictures of movie stars and other celebrities from a large part of the 2oth Century.
The menu at John’s has most of the expected Red Sauce dishes like; Spaghetti with White or Red Clams Sauce, Veal Saltimbocca, Chicken Scarpara, Veal Piccata, Speedino of Mozzarella alla Romano, Baked Clams Oreganata, Spaghetti & Meatballs, Lasagna, and Canneloni. The kitchen churns out real solid food with standouts being there Baked Clams and their Speedino alla Romano which is without question the best in the city.
John’s has quite a history with Lucky Lucciano being a regular once upon a time, along with numerous mobsters back in the day, and John’s has seen the likes of The Ramones, Cindy Lauper, John Lennon and other luminaries walk through its doors.
There’s one other old Red Sauce Joint around the corner from John’s, and that’s Lanza’s on 1st Avenue and 11th Street. Lanza’s is actually a few years older than John’s opening in 1904. Lanza’s is pretty nice and a good part of it has been preserved, although a few years ago they made some changes to the décor which sort of ruined it a bit. Lanza’s has that great classic red sauce joint menu with items like Spaghetti Marinara, Pasta Fagioli, Manicotti, Braciole, Cannoli, and the like.
Now we come to Patsy’s on West 56th Street in mid-town Manhattan. Guess what? This was Frank Sinatra’s all-time favorite restaurant, he ate there hundreds of times over the years and just loved it. It’s a great restaurant and if you go there, why not get some of Frank’s favorite dishes? Frank’s favorites were; Clams Posillipo, Spaghetti Marinara, and Veal Milanese. And yes, Sinatra went to Gino’s now and then, but it’s a well know fact that Patsy’s was his favorite.
Well, that’s about it on red sauce joints, they’re a dying breed I’m sorry to say. If you’ve never been to John’s, you must check it out. This place is like a museum. Truly. The owners have preserved its décor in an admirable manner, and what you see now is pretty much what Lucky Lucciano would have seen a 100 years ago. You’ll get a wonderful experience here of days gone by. An experience you’ll not find at too many places, so grab it while you still can.
Excerpted from Daniel Bellino Zwicke’s new forthcoming book, MANGIA ITALIANO, my Memories of Italian Food …. Due October 2016
GINO’S SECRET SAUCE – Salsa Segreto
This, and more in MANGIA ITALIANO – Memories of Italian Food
COMING October 2016