Step Into Italy, Right Here in Astoria

By / Photography By Jenna Matecki | January 26, 2018
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Vesta Trattoria Astoria Queens New York.

Eating authentic Italian isn't just about the food - it's about the people. And there are a lot of Italians in Astoria.

They filled their neighborhood with salumerias, bakeries, panini shops and restaurants. Their fresh mozzarella, heaven-filled mezzaluna ravioli, salted prosciutto, milky cappuccini and sacred date cakes make up a modern menu of wholehearted Italian classics alongside imaginative American originals. 

The gatekeeper to this delicious chaos is Frank DePaolo, the owner of Sorriso Italian Salumeria. DePaolo knows everyone; his shop has all the Italian food anyone’s heart could desire. 

Born in Calabria, Italy, DePaolo emigrated to the United States at age eight. His grandfather ran a bakery on Long Island, and one of DePaolo’s first jobs was working at a salumeria. He saved up enough money to open his own, Sorriso, 38 years ago. 

DePaolo and his number two, Joe, greet every customer at Sorriso’s with a slice of soppressata, and a laugh. It takes time for customers to adjust to the shop’s sensory overload—shelves and cases are stuffed with hundreds of Italian meats, cheeses, pastas, sauces, vinegars and biscotti. Hand-drawn neon signs with Sharpie-d smiley faces are taped to every shelf to help customers play the culinary scavenger hunt. 

“Did somebody say ‘diet?’ THERE’S NO SWEARING IN HERE!” an employee shouts from behind the counter, poking fun at a customer while taking down a catering order. Between freshly made meatballs and big-armed hugs, the scene here feels less like a market and more like a family dinner. 

“I’m on my third generation. Kids that used to come in here in their strollers with their mothers are now comin’ in with their kids—which is pretty cool. I don’t consider them customers anymore. They’re more like friends ... family.” 

Sorriso Italian Pork Store in Astoria Queens New York.
Sorriso salumeria in Astoria, owned by Frank DePaolo.
Photo 1: Every customer that walks into Sorriso’s is greeted with a slice of soppressata, and a laugh.
Photo 2: Sorriso salumeria in Astoria, owned by Frank DePaolo.

Across the street from Sorriso is another Italian-run operation: Gian Piero Bakery. On a Wednesday morning, owners Anna Della Polla and her son Gianni Della Polla can be found chatting with customers as they enjoy cinnamon-dashed Lavazza cappuccini, warm pane di casa and old-school pastries you’d find in the homeland. 

A few blocks away is Vite Vinosteria, where an authentic Sali e Tabachi sign hangs over the outside door, and juicy wines are poured inside. Up north is Piccola Venezia—where a friend of the owners greets you with a “Buona sera!” and takes your coat at the door. 

Anna Della Polla and her son Gianni Della Polla, Gian Piero Bakery Long Island City.
Tempting pastries and bread at Gian Piero Bakery in Long Island City Queens New York.
Photo 1: Anna Della Polla and her son Gianni Della Polla at Gian Piero Bakery.
Photo 2: Tempting pastries and bread at Gian Piero Bakery.

A quick uptown train to Ditmars brings you to the legendary Trattoria L’Incontro, where Chef Rocco Sacramone—with the help of his mother, Tina—riffs on traditional recipes from the old country. 

Sacramone and his family emigrated from Abruzzo, Italy, in 1970. “We came here by boat; we came on a one-way cruise,” he says with a deep laugh. He worked in the food industry for a few years before opening L’Incontro 18 years ago. Though he is often too busy to hang out, he still goes to Italian social clubs to spend time with friends. When they meet up for card game nights, they often have to “kick in” doors instead of turning the knob because their hands are filled with food. 

Thinking about the dishes that put Trattoria L’Incontro on the map, he recalls the time he unknowingly chatted with a food critic who asked him about his infamous mezzaluna ravioli—half-moon ravioli puffs filled with light mascarpone and pesto, bathed in a brandy wine sauce and topped with walnuts and fresh asparagus. 

“He looks up to me and says, ‘Mascarpone? Don’t you use that for tiramisù?!’ I said, “Yeah. But I decided to stuff it in the ravioli.” 

Rocco’s personal touch can be seen not just in the laundry list of ever-changing specials rattled off by waiters (including an out-of-body experience tossed in an heirloom cherry tomato and strawberry salad drizzled with balsamic and a ball of basil gelato on top), but also early on in the meal when diners are presented with a basket of oiled pizza bianca bread slices, a bowl of tangy sun-dried tomato dip and bottles of L’Incontro-branded olive oil and balsamic vinegar. 

“It’s a tradition. Growing up in Italy, we were poor, but we always had olive oil. We always dipped the bread in olive oil. I want to bring that experience back to some of the patrons here now.” 

They leave bread on the table even when entrées are around, which is perfect for when you want to fare la scarpetta (i.e., “make the little shoe”—as one does with bread to mop up a plate’s remaining sauce). 

Chef Sacramone’s customers are at Trattoria L’Incontro for a special night. Off-key but affectionately sung birthday songs can be heard over a soundtrack of operatic Italian music. Arm-in-arm photos are taken next to plates of pasta at tables 20 guests deep. 

Still, Sacramone insists, “A one-man show does not exist.” Even his favorite dish is modest: “My favorite pasta in the whole wide world is just spaghetti, garlic and oil.”Keeping it simple is a tenet of Italian cuisine—a culture known to prize fresh ingredients over their combinations. As Astoria’s population swells, many Italians from the neighborhood have felt the rising cost of living and have relocated to Whitestone. Yet, with new restaurants and wood-fired pizzerias continuing to pop up, it’s clear that the red, white and green flavors aren’t going anywhere. They’re just evolving.

Vite Vinosteria Astoria Queens New York
The sign at Vite Vinosteria in Astoria. Sali e Tabbachi translates to tobacconist's shop.

One such ancient-future spot is Vesta Trattoria & Wine Bar. Head Chef Danielle Tag and Sous Chef Peyton Powell serve up modern Italian dishes for new-to-the-’hood Astorians and in-the-know regulars. They make fresh-baked bread, homemade pasta and even stretch mozzarella in the kitchen. On top of celebrating real ingredients, they change up their menu weekly so that they and their patrons never get bored.

“I come from an Italian family, so I was a little six-year-old rolling meatballs in the kitchen with my aunts,” Tag says. She runs her kitchen on point, yet exudes the light, friendly kind of chill that comes with the confidence of knowing your product is good, and doesn’t need any explanations. 

It’s no wonder Vesta makes the ultimate comfort food. Their bowl of rigatoni with a sausage and eggplant ragu packs a rich, baseline depth of flavor. It features a whipped ricotta that hides fennel seeds, coriander and some secrets. “We call it magic spice,” Powell says. On the table to the left, there’s a mouthwatering linguine with a saffron mussel broth, breadcrumbs, lemon zest and pickled serrano peppers. Two tables down is the “Baby Jesus” cake—a date-flavored moist slice draped in toffee and served with house-made gelato. 

Vesta Trattoria Astoria Queens New York.
Vesta Trattoria Astoria Queens New York.
Photo 1: Vesta Trattoria's bowl of rigatoni with a sausage and eggplant ragu and fennel-coriander whipped ricotta.
Photo 2: A colorful salad at Vesta Trattoria.

There’s something obvious behind the local, no-fuss, jeans-and-T-shirts energy at Vesta. “Here it’s more of a family, long story short,” says bartender Hamlet Raetz as he pops open a bottle of wine that he recommends—a fruity, light-bodied ‘Prugento’ Sangiovese di Romagna from the Poderi dal Nespoli vineyards in Emilia-Romagna, Italy. 

Raetz pours a glass; over his right shoulder, past the wines on tap, stamped menus and wide-eyed eaters, there’s a bright green sign. 

It says unaccompanied children will be given an espresso and a free puppy. These are family joints—front of house, back of house, in the kitchen and on the plate. That ingredient never changes. 

Sorriso Italian Salumeria | @sorrisoastoria1
Gian Piero Bakery | @gianpierobakery
Vite Vinosteria | @vitovinosteria
Piccola Venezia | @piccolavenezia1973
Trattoria L’Incontro | @trattorialincontro
Vesta Trattoria & Wine Bar | @vestavino

Article from Edible Queens at http://ediblequeens.ediblecommunities.com/eat/step-italy-right-here-astoria
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