Since The New York Times’ recent hatchet job on Peter Luger, steak seems to be on everybody’s mind. No restaurant polarizes carnivores like Peter Luger. You’re either for or against the Brooklyn institution. I’m firmly in the against camp since paying a bill of $500 last year for two salads, two steaks and a bottle of bog-standard Cab, which included a tip of $50 for the maître d’ — a bribe by any other name — to honor our reservation time and not impose the hour-long delay that the host stand was quoting to its other booked guests.
So, when I heard about Macelleria, a new steakhouse in Pelham, where the vibe promised to be New York-hot but the prices would be fairly chill, I was there. “The concept,” says Macelleria (butcher in Italian) owner Tony Lala, “was to bring the city experience to Pelham. We are very reasonable with the prices, so I want people to come in seven days a week.”’
Macelleria is the kind of restaurant that barely exists any more — white tablecloths, servers in long white aprons and bowties and a waiter who looks at you as if you come from Mars when you ask him if the baked clams come with garlic. Cierto, of course they come with garlic — and lots of it. They are also almost indecently plump, baked with breadcrumbs, served piping hot and completely wonderful.
The tables at Macelleria are big, very big, all the better to eat lots of food. The country bread and cold white butter has me right there in a Tuscan kitchen, a sense of place enhanced by the general mood. Italy is in the air. At the table on my left, the party of six is talking about their day out at Capri’s blue grotto last summer. At the table on my right, also of six, they are talking about their stay in Positano. Actually, they are not talking, they are shouting, very, very loudly. And yes, there are a lot of tables of six on a Saturday night at Macelleria and there is also a lot of pushing and shoving. In order to bus dishes to the two back tables in the small side room where I am seated, waiters must line up in single file and pass the plates along like a production. I kid you not.
Now the table to my left is talking about Assisi and, on the right, they are recounting their experiences at the famous Palio of Siena. I’m touring Italy without leaving my seat. Tony is a little busy for any meaningful table talk this evening, but he does stop by from time to time to apologize for not stopping, if you catch my drift, and to ask me how I’m doing. I’m doing just fine, thank you Tony, glugging Pinot Grigio and coming to grips with a dish of fried calamari. Tony’s going to be turning 200 covers tonight and small talk is off the agenda.
The calamari have been shaken in salt and lack the lightness in the batter and the piping heat that can elevate these cephalopod rings from being just another variety of rubber band.
Service tonight is frankly abysmal. A simple Diet Coke arrives, only after the fourth request and a second glass of wine never does. But to nitpick the service is somehow to miss the point of Macelleria. There is wonderful burrata, sweet and milky, made tangy with a pinch of sea salt and a pasta fagioli soup to warm the cockles, or whatever it is these big, hearty wintry soups warm. But it’s really in the meaty entrées that Macelleria shines, braised short ribs over mushroom risotto, for instance, or flavorful New York strip steak or a blushing veal chop adorned with little more than a disc of maître d’hôtel butter.
As for the double lamb chops, four on the plate and enough to feed an army, they are superb. Served pink and tender, seductively fleshy, with a vincotto sauce, they’re the kind of chops on which Peter Luger’s reputation was made. A side of whipped potato feels luxurious and decadent, like spooning heavy cream straight from the carton. Finger-lickin’ good, I’m grateful for the butcher-style heavy cloth napkins, provided for the mop-up.
When Tony stops by the table to ask about desserts, “Non posso,” I tell him.
“Aha, so you speak Italian,” he says. “No, not really, just a few words,” I answer. “Same as me,” Tony says. “I’m not even Italian. I’m from Albania.”
Our Italian inadequacy secret shared and noted, Tony twists my arm to try a dessert after all, and I go for the un-Italian sounding tres leches cake. It’s pleasant enough, if a little slack, the whole no greater than the sum of the three milk parts. By contrast, at neighboring tables I’m hearing oohs and aahs for the crème brûlée and tiramisù.
With its chocolate box pictures of Italy, pen-and-ink drawing of the Duomo in Milan and borderline-kitsch, boudoir chandeliers, Macelleria (on the site of the former Jordan Hall) is not going to win prizes for its decoration, but it has the advantage if looking as if it has been here forever, which is reassuring. And in addition to its 1950s retro trattoria chic, cooking-wise it wipes the floor with some of the region’s older established steakhouses. In my view the only thing militating against this new arrival is the noise. But then again, if you can’t stand the noise, stay out of the centro storico.
Macelleria is at 142 Fifth Ave. in Pelham. For reservations and more, call 914-365-2561 or visit macelleriaitaliansteakhouse.com.