There are a few things to know before heading to Ozone Park to eat at Don Peppe, one of New York’s classic red sauce Italian restaurants. They don’t take reservations. Cash only. Everything is served family style, so it’s best experienced in a group (but the maximum party size is 12). There are two kinds of wine on the menu, red and white, both come chilled in carafes, and both are a little sweet. It’s not easy to get here. The room isn’t fancy–it’s brightly lit, has a drop ceiling and is lined with photos of horses and jockey jerseys from the nearby Aquaduct Racetrack. Their cult menu item, Chicken Chinese, pales in comparison to other dishes.
In short, it’s a real New York experience in a city full of carefully curated New American restaurants with farcically elaborate menus and trendy ingredients. And the food is ridiculously good.
If I haven’t made it clear yet, this is not a hidden gem of carefully sourced, authentically Italian dishes from a specific town in Italy. Don Peppe’s serves high red sauce cuisine. You will, however, be expected to order Italian-style–antipasti, then pasta, then a meat dish, but in American-sized portions. Arrive hungry, and try to hold back on the enormous, never-ending bread baskets that arrive almost as soon as you sit down.
To start, definitely order the Special Don Peppe Salad. Your waiter will dress, toss and serve it tableside, and while you could get all the ingredients–crisp iceburg, red onions, roasted red peppers, salami, provolone, and if you ask for them, anchovies tossed in a bright Italian vinaigrette–at the grocery store, you’d somehow never manage to put together an equally tasty salad. The baked clams are a no brainer, and the eggplant rollatini is cheesy, tender and delicious if you want to launch into the red sauce portion of the program right away.
The pasta course presents some tough decisions. Again, it’s all served family style, so your waiter will bring out a huge platter of pasta and then portion it out for the table. Don Peppe is famous for their linguine with clam sauce, for good reason–it’s rich and garlicky with a generous amount of clams and fresh parsley. Arguably though, the Shrimp Luciano is even better. It’s basically shrimp over spaghetti in a buttery sauce that definitely includes wine and caramelized onions or shallots, but it’s rich and velvety and so much more delicious than a description of the ingredients can convey. And, of course, you probably want to go red sauce too. It’s up to you, there really don’t seem to be any bad pasta choices to make here.
For your main course (personally, I’d order another pasta and skip the meat, but you’ll have to take that up with your very persuasive waiter), the veal Don Peppe is super thin, very crispy and topped with a sort of Italian salsa crudo of red onions, peppers and tomatoes, if you’re down with veal. One word of advice here–Don Peppe’s is famous for a dish called Chicken Chinese. It’s a half chicken, cut into pieces and cooked with a marinara until the sauce has reduced and darkened. It’s a totally fine dish, but there are better ones on the menu and its culty status is hard to understand.
If you’re going to go to Don Peppe’s you should really go to Don Peppe’s and order dessert as well, all of which are quite good. The tiramisu reminds you why everyone was so obsessed with it in the ’90s, though the espresso is typically Italian-American restaurant bad. (What is with that? You can’t find a bad shot of espresso in Italy.)
Take my suggestions or don’t–it doesn’t seem possible to have a bad meal at Don Peppe’s; everything is solidly good and garlicked. And really, it’s about the experience; the room that stays full the entire night, the no frills decor and the tableside service. And the fact that there’s not a leaf of kale, a bite of pork belly or an Edison bulb in sight anywhere.
Don Peppe’s, 135-58 Lefferts Blvd., Ozone Park, Queens, (718) 845-7587