Hats Off to Larry!

We were less thrilled with our pastas. We felt duty-bound to try Rose's spaghetti and meatballs ($6.95) named after Tony's mother, their inventor. The spaghetti was cooked al dente, but the large meatballs were herb-impaired and filler-full. "This tastes just like my mom's meatloaf, and my mother wasn't much of a cook," said TJ. "I'm sure the filler is crushed saltines. Once you know that taste you can always recognize it." The sauce was evidently bland by plan, a mild marinara that had already been mixed with Parmesan. We also took home a sample of an Asian pasta from the menu's "Good To-Go Meals." Chow's mein, Shanghai noodles ($4.25) consisted of -- more spaghetti. (Genuine Shanghai noodles are fresh, not dried pasta, and their flour base isn't semolina.) Their slightly spicy peanut sauce was the standard recipe that runs in the Wednesday food sections once or twice a year. The sauce is also served with a half "Thai chicken" ($7.25).

But our pizza (12 inches, $6.95) was a reminder of how fine ingredients can make familiar dishes special. With a tasty, slightly puffy crust (the way Wolfgang Puck's frozen pizza would be if it were any good), it had big, creamy dollops of whole-milk mozzarella (not the stringy semiskim of cheap chains), plus melty bites of tangy feta and hunks of flavorful Italian fennel sausage turned out of its skin. Slivers of red onion added sweet piquancy. As we were sawing away with a pizza wheel, a couple of guys sat down at the next table. The one nearest resembled a Papa Hemingway clone colored like the Stars and Stripes with red skin, white hair and beard, and blue eyes. "Do you mind telling me what type of pizza you're eating? Is it good?" he asked. I happily handed over a slice, saying, "It's great, but we're both running out of appetite." "Papa" tasted it and swiftly ordered one for himself.

On the return visit, we had the lemon rosemary grilled half-chicken ($7.25), which came with rosemary-strewn roasted new potatoes and a few asparagus spears. All quite nice, but not half as nice as the Burger Royale ($6.50). Ever since the big burger scare, the America "where hamburgers sizzle on an open grill night and day" seems to have vanished on us. Between the crummy chains and the food-cop alarms, for years all we've been able to get are dried-out steer patties. At Chow, we ordered "rare" and the giant house-ground chuck patty was genuinely flame-broiled and rare indeed, served on a sliced baguette and accompanied by a heap of thin french fries, plus a dress-it-yourself array of fixin's, including the usual burger-veggies, house-made mayo, and a vast collection of bottled stuff (ketchup, mustards, steak sauce, Worcestershire, hot fudge ... not really) a waiter plunked on the table. The next time hamburger hunger strikes, we'll know where to go.

After our first meal, unaware of house policies, I slipped out the door for a cigarette; Larry followed to fetch me back inside, assuring me that smokers are welcome at the bar. TJ and I moved there and discussed dessert: We couldn't eat another bite, but couldn't resist Sicilian cannoli ($2.25). "Takeout!" I said. "In the immortal words of Clemenza, 'Leave the gun, take the cannoli.' " (Later that night, we ate the semicrisp, light-colored pastry shell filled with a sweetened ricotta cream, semisweet chocolate chips, and minced pistachios. It was good, but not quite the best version; I missed the classic crumbly shell and bittersweet candied orange peel in the filling.)

I finally asked Larry if he was from New York. Yeah, he confessed, he was from Bensonhurst (a lower-middle-class Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn). Just then a crush of waiters and waitresses amassed at the cash register at the end of the bar, as several tables simultaneously needed their bills. "New Yorkers are so pushy," said a short, cute waiter, pushing to the front. "Would you believe -- he used to be a professional skater?" Larry guffawed. "And Larry used to be a football player," the smaller waiter riposted. "With the New York Jets." As Larry mimed tackling him, the little guy burst into, "When you're a Jet, you're a Jet all the way, from your first cigarette to your last dying day ...."

A musical comedy erupting in real life? You gotta love the place. And lots of people do. On our second visit, by 7:30 it was almost SRO, with every age, gender, and sensibility represented. As we were crossing Market, we overheard two guys dressed all in leather saying, "Have you seen the kitchen yet? It's brand new and it's huge!" And we knew for certain where they were heading for some chow.

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