Carnevale in Brooklyn

Arthur Meehan

Last year we celebrated Carnevale, the traditional pre-Lent farewell to the flesh, not by dancing in the streets of Venice or Rio or New Orleans but by going to dinner at an exuberant Italian-American restaurant in Brooklyn. Tommaso's, a fixture of the community for more than 35 years, hosts a series of lavish dinners that hark back decades, to a time when most people really did fast for Lent and truly did indulge themselves beforehand.

A raw, cold February wind whipped at us as we walked through Bensonhurst, a working-class neighborhood once populated mostly by immigrants from southern Italy, now giving way to Russians and Chinese. Its streets are still peppered with Italian pastry shops, latterie (dairy shops), and pork butchers, but many families have left for larger homes in New Jersey and Staten Island. They still come back now and then, though, both to shop and to eat at Tommaso's.

The moment we stepped into the restaurant, we were wrapped in the warmth of Naples: there was a huge, gleaming baroque copper espresso machine on the bar and a vast array of artisanal grappas behind it, old family photographs on the walls, and Tommaso himself—burly, bearded Thomas Verdillo, monumental in a flouncy black-and-white Pagliaccio costume and floppy red jester's hat, enveloping us in a bear hug. Instantly the waiters covered our table with antipasti: grilled, roasted, marinated, and stuffed vegetables; fresh mozzarella and aged provolone; bread studded with pork cracklings; salami, anchovies, olives, breadsticks, and more. Hot antipasti followed: baked clams, fried calamari, mussels marinara, fried mozzarella sandwiches; baked, stuffed, and sauced hot vegetables; and cotica—meltingly tender pork skin stuffed with walnuts, pecorino, parsley, and raisins, then braised with cabbage and cotechino sausage. We didn't choose; we got it all. And this was only the beginning. Tonight we were guests in a Neapolitan home, and the family honor would not let us leave until we were as effectively stuffed as the pork skins.

We first met Tommaso at BIBE, a wine fair in Genoa, in the early 1980s. He was extremely knowledgeable and passionate about wine and food, and we seemed to agree on just about everything—so when he later invited us to his restaurant, we went unhesitatingly. At first glance, Tommaso's menu seemed like a stereotypically Italian-American list of tomato-sauced pastas and meats. But dinner was spectacular. The standby dishes were delicious (the pasta was homemade and never prepared the same way twice), and there were also unusual southern Italian specialties, like sartu, a Neapolitan timbale of rice and sweetbreads.

The star, though, was Tommaso, suffusing the restaurant with his overflowing personality. He wandered from table to table, chatting with young couples on dates and multigenerational families alike. Every so often, he'd stop, position himself, and sing an aria. That's when we learned that he was also a trained opera tenor; he had begun singing in the opening days of the restaurant, to keep customers entertained when the kitchen was slow.

In the beginning, Tommaso served a prix fixe menu that catered to the Italian Americans who lived in the neighborhood. "In those days people thought Neapolitan cooking was eggplant parmesan and veal marsala," he explains, and that's what he cooked. Over the years, Tommaso revamped his menu, incorporating specialties from all over Italy. He increased the number of tables to 35 (from 16) and built up a remarkable wine cellar esteemed by oenophiles from Manhattan and beyond. But his philosophy has remained constant. "I opened the restaurant as an extension of my home," says Tommaso. "It is my kitchen and my dining room, and the customers are my guests."

Generosity was part of Tommaso's upbringing. He was the youngest of six children in a Bensonhurst family. His mother, Ida, was a nurse; his father, Mario, was a mechanic, born in Avellino, near Naples. "Food wasn't just fuel," says Tommaso. "It was a daily celebration of the family and just of the fact that you had survived, that everyone was okay.… It was the right of anyone who walked into my mother's house to sit and eat."

Tommaso, who has never married or had children, has succeeded in translating that southern Italian mentality to his restaurant. If he makes a special dish for one table, the other ones get some, too. People at a neighboring table tell you about their wine, then send over a glass so you can taste. Waiters ask customers about their families, and customers ask waiters about theirs. And although the restaurant's head cook, Matty Avilla, does much of the hands-on work in the kitchen, Tommaso supervises every aspect of what goes on there.

Until the mid-1960s, when the Vatican relaxed the rules governing Lenten fasting (among other revisions to canon law), Carnevale in southern Italy—and in Bensonhurst, where so many southern Italians lived—meant all-out splurging on food. The over-the-top Carnevale menu at Tommaso's is rooted in that tradition and includes many of the same specialties that his mother—a first-generation Neapolitan American—used to make during his childhood.

The remains of the antipasti were carried off, and now we had to make some choices. First, the wine—no easy task, given the breadth of the restaurant's cellar (it holds some 15,000 bottles, mainly from Italy, France, and California, many no longer available elsewhere). "I started the cellar when I began going to Italy, 25 years ago," Tommaso told us. "First-rate Italian wines were reasonably priced then. Now I can't buy them—my customers wouldn't pay what I'd have to charge." That said, his prices are almost unbelievably low; he sells very drinkable house reds and whites for $20 a bottle, and a rare wine like the 1982 Aldo Conterno Vigna Collonello Barolo costs only $90. We finally chose a 1997 Toni from Cataldi Madonna, an exquisitely complex wine from Abruzzi, for $55.

Next, the menu. We settled on rigatoni and pasta e fagioli (pasta and bean soup), which is so good that visiting Italian winemakers have been known to take containers of it back home. It was agony having to reject the minestra napoletana (pasta, beans, pork, and escarole soup) and the lasagne di carnevale, interleaved with pork, beef, sausage, meatballs, and cheeses, but Tommaso dropped off a portion of lasagne so that we wouldn't miss it.

Then the secondi began to stream past: stuffed chicken breast; veal rolled in pancetta; three kinds of sausage; and breast of pork carnevale, fragrant with cloves, cumin, and honey. And roast suckling pig. "A plate of that goes automatically to every table," Tommaso says. "I don't list it on the menu, because everyone would order it anyhow."

As we ate our veal and pork, the room burbled with conversation, punctuated by the clink of enthusiastically wielded cutlery. A hush announced that Tommaso was about to sing. He took a breath and launched into "Libiamo", from Verdi's La Traviata, and his strong, warm tenor filled the restaurant, exhorting us all to drink and enjoy. Then smiling, dark-haired Nina DiGregorio—a small woman with a big soprano voice who runs a Brooklyn opera company—sang "Finiculi finicula", accompanied by pianist Ray Boutin. Ray doesn't take requests and, in fact, rarely speaks. If pressed, he will identify that last, haunting tune: "Gershwin." That's all you'll get.

We sat and savored bowls of vanilla ice cream and sanguinaccio, a velvety chocolate pudding whose texture traditionally comes from pig's blood. Mostly, we basked in a glow of well-being. The dual purpose of Carnevale had been gloriously achieved: family honor had been satisfied, and it would be very easy to fast the next day.