12 N. Park Ave., Rockville Centre, 516-764-3000, dodicirestaurant.com
SERVICE: Friendly and highly trained, if occasionally harried on busy nights
AMBIENCE: Buzzing and celebratory
ESSENTIALS: Open Monday to Thursday noon to 10 p.m., Friday noon to 11 p.m., Saturday 1 to 11 p.m., Sunday 2 to 10 p.m. Wheelchair accessible, valet parking Friday and Saturday, otherwise street and town municipal parking.
The best restaurant meals are a mixture of comfort and delight: You relax in knowing the lay of the land, but rejoice in the unexpected — the commonplace dish made great, the waiter appearing to genuinely enjoy your dumb joke about the lobster bib.
This is what you’ll find at Dodici in Rockville Centre, and that explains why it’s still going strong at 25. Raymond Montemurro, a third-generation restaurateur who also owns Blue Moon pizzeria up the street (est. 1998), has created a place that calls to mind not so much Italy but a picture postcard thereof. The vaulted ceilings are painted sky blue and flourished with cherubs, the ocher walls are hung with reproductions of Michelangelo and Raphael, Hall & Oates are on the soundtrack, and longtime chef Segundo Inga provides scores of dishes to please crowds and critics alike.
The star of the starters was a humble white bean soup, suave and rich and garnished with crunchy croutons and gossamer strands of escarole. Another Southern Italian stalwart similarly elevated was the arancino, a golden fried orb of lightly bound rice, its molten center a magma of ground veal, ricotta and sweet peas. The mussels in the cozze Livornese were meaty bruisers, tossed with a caper-rich tomato sauce just spicy enough.
Cold appetizers were not as successful. A carpaccio of beef featured flavorless meat, a pile of unseasoned arugula and, instead of the incomparably elegant Parmesan, slices of down-market Asiago. The mellow pep of extra-virgin olive oil was also MIA, though I was grateful not to discern the truffle oil promised by the menu.
Among the pasta dishes we tried, the clear winner was the orecchiette Pugliesi, a pervasive primo on Long Island that depends on chunks (not bits) of good sausage, broccoli rabe that is tender but toothsome, “little ears” of pasta that are still chewy and not stuck together. Check, check and check. But cacio pepe was a bust, the spaghetti overcooked and instead of wearing a tight veil of salty Pecorino and spine-straightening pepper, it sat in a bland, cheese-adjacent sauce.
One night, on my way to the restroom, I passed an amazing-looking platter of lobster and pasta and, on my next visit, I ordered the aragosta alla Corsicana, thinking that was it. In fact, what I had seen was an off-the-menu lobster fra diavolo and my own dish turned out to be lobster, mussels, clams and calamari and perfectly cooked tagliatelle in a rather pallid sauce.
I wish that lobster had been on the menu, but I was grateful for the kitchen’s flexibility when one of my friends asked if he could get another item not listed, veal Francese. “Absolutely” was the response, and we were rewarded with a terrific rendition, meat tender enough for a fork, the sauce tasting of real lemons.
Another standout: the maiale Milanese, a massive bone-in pork chop pounded thin (but not too thin), breaded and fried and topped with just the right amount of spinach, prosciutto and Fontina to complement and not overwhelm the meat. Equally soul-satisfying was a sizzle plate bearing fat, juicy Italian sausages and an attention to detail: onions and peppers browned to a turn and basil leaves freshening the works.
I barely plumbed the depths of Dodici’s many fish offerings, though a well-grilled slab of swordfish augured well.
I’d give the dessert nod to the tiramisu, tasting more of coffee than chocolate and not too sweet. Apple strudel had been reheated out of flakiness. a sort of flattened calzone filled with Nutella and ricotta had me admiring the wood-oven crust (which enjoined me to order a pizza, excellent, on my next visit) but the filling was not worthy of its package.
Dodici’s wine list is strong in Italian reds, markedly weaker in Italian whites, and positively anemic when it comes to whites by the glass. Behind the sizable bar is a Cruvinet, the temperature-controlled wine dispenser that keeps wine fresh for weeks, and you’ll usually find a couple of more interesting by-the-glass selections there.
Service is friendly and assured: waiters, bussers and runners all know their parts in this long-running ballet. Twenty-five years in, the whole enterprise seems poised for an extended run.