Location: 12 Franklin Ave. Hewlett, NY 11557
Description: Cucina di Vargas is a family-style Italian restaurant that serves large portions at a reasonable ... More »
Like so many successful Long Island Italian chefs, Narciso "Bien" Vargas hails from Central America. Years spent at the helm of Hewlett's now-departed Matteo's earned him a sizable local following. Now, at the restaurant that bears his name, he proves he hasn't lost his touch -- or his admirers. They're a table-hopping bunch and can give the narrow, simply decorated dining space the aura of a club. Valet parking enhances that image.
But there's no sense of exclusivity here at Cucina di Vargas . Newcomers are greeted warmly, and prices are surprisingly low. Regular portions feed three or four; half-orders can serve two or more. In fact, half an order of fried zucchini handily satisfied four.
Actually, satisfied might not be the most accurate word, for every shard was a crunchy, nutty, crisp-tender revelation. A half order of chopped Italian salad with salami and cheese was bright, well-dressed and considerately pre-divided into four bowls. Clams casino, topped with dark, smoky bacon, had its own appeal, as did zuppa di clams, plump mollusks in a robust red sauce.
Here, a half order of chicken scarpariello means seven pieces of simply roasted poultry, juicy and savory. Pleasing, too, is the tender chicken limone, boneless breasts in a citrusy sauce. Shrimp marinara is just that -- shellfish in a garlicky red sauce; not fancy, just good. Linguine with clam sauce is defined by lots of garlic, gentled by roasting, and clams out of their shells. More clams would have improved the dish. The sauce in the al dente penne Bolognese had no cream, making it more of a meat sauce than a true Bolognese. Even so, the dish was vibrant and satisfying. A side order of burnt broccoli -- a dish that's turning up all over Long Island -- was exactly what its name implies. Some will like it; others won't.
But it would be hard to resist the house-made Napoleon, a simple construct of puff pastry and freshly whipped cream, inexplicably garnished with aerosol whipped cream. Ask for yours plain. This is the only dessert you'll need and -- despite all the eating that's come before -- one you may not want to share.