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July 2, 2012
Review: Ragazzi Italian Kitchen & Bar
By Janene Mascarella
As fate would have it, for my dinner at Ragazzi Italian Kitchen & Bar I was joined by two of Long Island's toughest, most finicky food critics: my kids. There is just no room for an off night - and not even a bad bread stick escapes the razor sharp eye of a ravenous 9-year-old boy. Ragazzi (which means "The Boys" in Italian) is more a romantic date night or group of friends type of place but thankfully, my kids felt at-ease and at home. The restaurant, which opened about two years ago, has quickly earned quite a nice reputation for their dishes. Their location is key: it's right across the street from the Smithaven Mall in Nesconset - making it an easy spot to find. Pulling into the packed parking lot at 8pm on a random Wednesday night was the first sign this restaurant was going to be impressive.
Meatballs (one of Ragazzi's claim to fame) are a hard sell for my family and I gave first honors to my son, who cleared an entire meatball before passing judgment. (He took his apprentice reviewer role very seriously!) On the Ragazzi menu, you can order their famous homemade meatballs with fresh mozzarella centers it as an appetizer (Polpette, $9.50) "Amazing," he said while sliding the dish across the table. "Put me down for 'amazing'. Mom, you've got to try this." You would have to imagine with a name like Antonio, it's gotta be good. And it was. They arrived at the table simmering in sauce and sprinkled with Pecorino Romano cheese. Their meatballs were indeed amazing. It was duly noted and we moved on to a few other classic Italian starters as my inner Sicilian goddess did a backflip.
Giving no previous indication or advanced notice that I would be visiting that night, I watched a sharp, well-dressed man (who I later learned was co-owner Roger Bedoian) move about the room, carrying glasses of wine to tables, chatting and joking with the staff with a rare "ownership" report. My husband noticed as well and he echoed what I was thinking. "This is why they are busy at 8:30 at night on a weeknight." There's a careful, quiet confidence that speaks volumes here. A true pride in the decor, the dishes, and demeanor. Itâ€™s ambient, warm and open - not pretentious or showy. Classy is what comes to mind, and all the magic that makes Ragazzi so special comes from the areas unseen: the kitchen.
No image will ever do this dish justice but I implore you - if you head to Ragazzi, a most memorable Italian appetizer their Napoleone Di Melanzane ($9). It's the most succulent combination - breaded eggplant layered in sauteed spinach and parmesan topped with tomato sauce and melted mozzarella. It's impressive enough to be a main dish and even possibly portioned as one. Oh yes, did I mention it's $9? I'm going to have to go with an "amazing" on that one too. I almost felt a little miffed I didn't drop by sooner.
For the main course, we ordered some standby faves and took some chances. While I'm not on a gluten free diet, so many are and it was a pleasure to see that all the pasta dishes on the menu can be prepared with gluten free pasta. With over 15 pasta dish choices, they've got all the classics covered and many have a creative twist. I was honestly looking for something -anything to report as less than stellar because I have my own reputation to protect but I simply could not find anything negative about the night. My two little food critics raved - no snickering, complaining or begging to leave. The chicken parm did not disappoint and the dinner portions were generous. My order was partially impressive: Pollo Florendena ($18), a chicken cutlet smothered with sauteed spinach, melted mozzarella, mushrooms and a light brown sauce. It was a creative departure from the red sauce flavor and I truly enjoyed it. "This is so good - I need to learn how to make this," I proclaimed. My husband's response: "Please don't. We can come back, honey."
Having just hosted a big Italian dinner at a top restaurant - had I known, I would have picked this spot, for sure. My big Italian family would have been impressed. But there's always a party on the horizon and Ragazzi also offers a full catering menu and party packages. The night I dropped by was uncomfortably humid outside, but I did sneak a peek at the outdoor dining patio. What a great spot to have lunch or cocktails with my girlfriends. Or even better, a romantic dinner with my husband - sans the kids.
If you're on the hunt for a great dining spot, I insist you give "The Boys" a visit. Ragazzi retains the integrity of an old world Italian dinner and the friendly vibe of their dining room matches the warmth you'd find in a family kitchen. The staff is open, chatty and full of smiles. Clearly you are a welcomed and respected guest. I have a strong hunch Ragazzi will remain and continue to draw crowds. Out of this world dishes. Down to earth prices. And all-out classy.
Ragazzi Italian Kitchen & Bar
Long Island Restaurant News Plate Rating System:
Janene Mascarella is a freelance lifestyle writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, CNN Money, AARP, American Way, Self, Glamour, Health, Cooking Light, Women's Health, Woman's Day, Weight Watchers, Parenting, Parents, Family Circle, Babytalk, American Baby, Arthritis Today, Working Mother, Bella, CBS News, AOL Travel, Mint.com, iVillage.com, and many others. Follow her on Twitter: @MrsWrite.