Even though I am as Italian-American as the cuisine I always feel somewhat out of place at Park Side, the 30-year-old red sauce temple overlooking Corona’s bocce court. Granted I’ve only been twice, but both times I’ve felt as if I were relegated to the children’s table at a family Thanksgivng. Perhaps it is too much for a pezzonovante like myself to expect to dine on the main floor.
A few weeks ago I dined there with some food writer pals, including Max Falkowitz, editor of Serious Eats New York. I showed up in a summer weight suit, sporting a tie and cuff links. My dining companions were neatly dressed, but I seemed to be the sole standard-bearer of Italian-American swag. Even without the disparity in our attire the truth is I still would have felt out of place. The glitzy Marilyn room calls to mind my Uncle Carmine’s house were it eight times bigger and filled with strangers.
Max wrote an excellent piece waxing nostalgic about how he and his family used to celebrate birthdays there. While the food we ate there that night was all good, especially the stuffed artichoke, prosciutto bread, and hot cherry peppers, much of the fare at Park Side is familiar territory to this Italian-American boy. When my folks wanted to dine on something exotic my father would take us out for Peking Duck. He’d order it a day ahead at one of the local Chinese joints. The bird was borne out on a cart, outfitted with a gong that the waiter rang when it arrived at table. Talk about pageantry.
If Park Side is something of a destination for big shots—wannabe and otherwise—to splurge, then the newly opened Cucino a Modo Mio is a place for campare—wannabe and otherwise—to enjoy cucina casereccia, or Italian home cooking. As I learned when I wandered into a graduation party there a month ago cucina casereccia is distinct from red sauce Italian-American cuisine. When I poked my head in Eleonora Gigliotti the matriarch of the family that owns the place immediately offered to fix me a plate. Perhaps it was the Italian soccer jersey and fresh from the barber haircut I was sporting. At first I politely refused. When I learned that she and her husband are from Calabria, just like my mother’s family, I succumbed to hunger and heritage.
When I returned to Cucino a Modo Mio last week I took a seat in the rear dining room. Lined with all matter of curios from the old country—saws, mortars, wagon wheels, ewers, lanterns—it resembles nothing so much as a Calabrese Cracker Barrel. I felt at home immediately, even more so when I noticed an older gentleman talking loudly and excitedly in Italian punctuating his sentences with forceful slaps of his palm upon the table. He turned out to be Eleonora’s husband, Gregorio, a contractor by trade. He told me that he gathered the knickknacks over a period of several decades and that it took four years to build the restaurant.
Weekday afternoons Cucino Modo a Mio features an $18 buffet. My plate included wonderfully al dente orechiette in a ragu of beef, lamb, and pork. Roast pork and roast veal in gravy were both lovely as was their ribbon of fat, which I gobbled up. Roasted eggplant slicked with olive oil was equal parts soft and caramelized. And there were stuffed mushrooms, bringing to mind childhood Thanksgivings. When I left Eleonora and Gregorio were having a rather animated argument outside. Now I really felt at home.
Park Side and Cucino a Modo Mio are two very distinct dining experiences, but they share one thing in common: dessert. That is to say dessert from the Lemon Ice King of Corona. Choose whatever flavor you like, but make sure to eat it while watching the boys of summer play bocce. I find taking in a few frames to be quite good for the digestion. Please enjoy the above video by my pal James Boo. Look for the cameo of me savoring a spumoni ice beside the bocce courts. It just might be the only time you’ll see me in my big shot duds.
Park Side,107-01 Corona Ave., Corona, 718-271 – 9274
Cucino a Modo Mio, 51-01 108th St., Corona, 718-271-4300