Family-style restaurant goes upscale in New York

January 20, 1991|By Newsday

NEW YORK -- The fried squid is piled so high that pieces keep rolling off the platter onto the tablecloth. The rigatoni with broccoli, beans and sausage could feed six size-8 or eight size-6 women. The salad dressing has enough vinegar to clear the sinuses of an army.

It's not Sunday noon at Grandma's, but Saturday night at Carmine's. At this hot new Manhattan restaurant, ordinarily pampered customers wait hours for the privilege of serving themselves from hefty platters of chicken contadina, bowls of linguine in white clam sauce and carafes of harsh red wine.

There is nothing new about putting platters of food on a table so diners can help themselves. It is called "home style" or "family style," and it is done all over the United States. Think of Durgin Park in Boston. Think of boardinghouse restaurants in the South, Ukrainian and Polish restaurants in the New York's East Village, Chinese restaurants, and Italian restaurants in hundreds of Italian neighborhoods.

What is new is that family-style dining is moving into high-rent districts. It makes sense economically and emotionally.

The economic benefits are obvious. Cooking one dish for six costs less than cooking six different dishes, and the saving can be passed on to diners. That is a plus at a time when "people still want to eat out every night, but they want to eat out cheap," said Mauro Gallo, owner of Trattoria Sambucco in New York.

The emotional benefits, while less obvious, also are important. When money is short, there is something satisfying about a table that is covered with plates of food. Southern-cooking teacher Nathalie Dupree said that family-style restaurants flourished during the Depression, in reaction to the fear of hunger. "In economic hard times, it's reassuring to feel you can eat as much as you want. You put out all that you have. You keep adding more vegetables from the garden until there is a sufficiency on the table."

And some people say the rise of family-style dining is another sign of the end of the Me Decade.

Far-fetched? Not according to Faith Popcorn of Brainreserve, which identifies social trends for businesses. It was Ms. Popcorn who, nearly 10 years ago, described "cocooning," or the return to home-based activities. Family-style dining, she said, "is obviously more than a way to save money. It's a matter of feeling. We want to take the homey feeling out with us. With families falling apart or far-flung, we try to re-create them by meeting friends in hangouts and going out with a crowd."

Godfrey Polistina, a partner in Carmine's, said that is just what happens at his restaurant. "I grew up in an Italian family in the Bronx, where everything took place around the table. Now every table in our restaurant is like a microcosm of a family unit."

It took Pino Luongo and Arthur Cutler to bring family-style dining to upscale Manhattan. Mr. Luongo, owner of Le Madri in Manhattan and Sappore di Mare in the Hamptons, wanted to open a restaurant modeled on an Italian trattoria, where customers eat whatever the chef cooks that day.

"It's economical, but it's not only the economy," Mr. Luongo said. "Some foods, such as fish stew, taste better when they're cooked in large quantities, and it's stupid to make them for one."

Mr. Luongo's Coco Pazzo, or "crazy chef," features Tuscan polentas and mixed grills. They are more sophisticated than Carmine's Italian-American red-sauced dishes. "Carmine's has neighborhood food," Mr. Luongo said, "but it's not my neighborhood."

Arthur Cutler, owner of Docks, Docks II and Ollie's, had eaten at Dominick's, La Parma and Dom Pepe's when he went to Mr. Polistina's wedding in Port Chester, N.Y. Mr. Polistina described it as "a typical Italian wedding, with hundreds of people and food that kept on coming. Artie loved it, and said, 'Why not do something in the city that had that abundance and those flavors?' "

They opened Carmine's four months ago and have been such a success that imitations already are springing up around the city.

It is no accident this is happening now, said Margaret Mackenzie, professor of anthropology at the California College of Arts and Crafts. Food is always more than something to eat, and the way we eat it shows the unspoken assumptions of our culture.

She pointed out that in the individualistic '80s, restaurant chefs arranged food carefully on individual plates. Home cooks covered plates with plastic wrap, zapped them in the microwave and ate them alone, in front of the VCR.

Distributed by Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service

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