Long Island vegans now have a restaurant entirely their own, thanks to one ambitious 23-year-old. Chef Jay Astafa (whose pizza won first place in a 2011 national vegan competition) co-owns the place with his parents and brothers. At the pizza oven is Jay's brother Besart; his mother, Sue, is sous chef. What they offer is an exclusively plant-based menu -- no meat, no eggs, no milk, no cheese.
Past the pizza counter is a well-appointed dining room. One glance around reveals that plenty of Long Islanders are eating vegan. If you're one, you'll want to make reservations.
To start, the breadbasket holds warm, garlicky flatbread slices along with a zesty marinara dipping sauce. Astafa makes his own vegan cheeses, so, on top of a puffy-crisp-crusted wood oven-baked Margherita pizza you'll find cashew milk mozzarella. In small amounts, it works well, but as the star component of mozzarella en carozza -- a thick fried cheese sandwich -- it comes off as a bit bland and pasty. Yet, combined with cashew Parmesan, it blends well into arancini, crispy-creamy Italian rice balls.
A real standout is Buffalo cauliflower, the vegetable first marinated, then batter-fried and then tossed in a mix of hot sauces. Another winner is the platter of crisp, greaseless oyster-mushroom "calamari." And the vibrant Caesar salad, featuring cashew Parmesan and house-made croutons.
On a night when Astafa is out on a catering job, the kitchen sends out a bacon cheeseburger without its seitan bacon and cashew milk Cheddar; a BBQ jackfruit panino with purple cabbage slaw doesn't quite come together.
Contrast that to a night when he's making the rounds of the dining room. Then, eggplant Parmigiana comes out commendably light and lush. And seitan piccata with a bright and citrusy lemon-caper sauce makes you forget you're eating wheat gluten scallopini. Whether he's absent or present, you may want to forego his spaghetti with seitan meatballs, which are spongy and dull. Better to order one of the other pastas -- like the creditable penne alla vodka with cashew cream sauce or the lively toss of orecchiette, house-made seitan sausage and broccoli rabe.
Desserts come from a commercial vegan bakery. Two cakes, both chocolate raspberry and "death by chocolate," are layered, gooey and very sweet. You could be eating them at any restaurant, not necessarily a vegan one. That may be exactly what Astafa is striving for.