I never pass up an opportunity to scour a corner of Long Island for great eats. Whether I’ve gotten lost, or purposely wandered off the beaten path to avoid traffic or have a sick relative in a hospital I’ve never visited, it’s all grist for the food writer’s mill. And that is how I found myself in Greater Elmont, tracing a path around UBS Arena, the brand-spanking-new home for the New York Islanders and concertgoers. I may not know a slap shot when I see one, but I do know hungry fans shouldn’t be limited to a venue’s food-concession offerings.
To be sure, there are places in the area that have long been on the radar for Long Island food lovers. Among them are Torigo in Floral Park, one of the best sushi bars on Long Island (and one of our Top 100 restaurants); Cheng Du in Franklin Square, a destination for Sichuan cooking; King Umberto (another Top 100 pick) in Elmont and Umberto’s in New Hyde Park, two of Nassau’s most famous pizzeria-ristorantes. But there is such an abundance of appealing spots that you’ll want to plan a trip to Elmont and its environs even if you have no intention whatsoever of attending a hockey game or a concert.
Most of these places are found along the two main east-west thoroughfares, Jericho Turnpike and Hempstead Turnpike. So let’s begin on Jericho, right at the Nassau-Queens border.
Our first stop is Nancy's. It was 1943 when Victoria Zina opened her nameless tavern. In 1966, Victoria’s daughter, Nancy Four, took charge and expanded into the neighboring lot, occasioning the installation of the distinctive, sharply peaked chalet-style roof. Nancy’s daughter, Vicky Four, grew up in the restaurant and, in 1999, assumed ownership along with her sister, Jacqueline, and brother-in-law, David Sanders, a French-trained chef with an impressive resume.
Vicky is looking forward to the new venue. "I think it’s going to be good for the dinner business all around the neighborhood," she said. "And if people want to come in after the game, I’m more than happy to stay late behind the bar." In the kitchen, Sanders brings his experience to bear on a menu that, on the surface, is all about comfort. But the beef for that half-pound burger is ground in house, the fries are hand cut. David makes his own gnocchi (served with housemade sausage), tagliatelle (topped with shrimp and crab) and the spaetzle that soaks up all the juices of the "porterhouse" pork chop. His bread graces each table and, when unused loaves dry out, they become the croutons for the spinach and Caesar salads, the base for the bread pudding.
Three blocks east of Nancy’s is another veteran, the oldest Italian restaurant around, Stella Ristorante. Truth be told, I could have written a story just about where to eat Italian food near UBS Arena, so drenched in marinara is this corner of Nassau County. In Floral Park alone, there’s Villa D’Este and Poppy’s Place; in Elmont, Salvatore’s; in Franklin Square, Filomena’s and Carmela’s. And that’s not even counting pizzerias.
But there’s old-school Italian, and then there’s Stella. In 1960, Gina Cerrone bought a tiny shop called Stella that served pizza and sandwiches. Within a few years she had taken over the antiques shop to the west and the answering service to the east, and the restaurant assumed its current dimensions — as well as its interior, complete with patterned carpeting, plush red banquettes and Tiffany-style chandeliers. "Not much has changed," conceded Gina’s daughter, Elsa Cerrone. "We just keep it clean."
Gina never changed the name either; instead, she assumed it, becoming "Mamma Stella" to generations of patrons. She died in 2016, but her armchair still commands a view of the front door and, opposite the chair, her oil portrait can see into the kitchen.
Elsa runs the dining room at Stella. Her sister, Enza Tomaselli, cooks along with her husband, Vincenzo; her brother, Peter Cerrone; and cousin Antonio Martellaccio. Enza is in charge of the tomato sauce that graces Stella’s signature lasagna (along with homemade noodles) and naps the chicken Parmesan. All I could get out of her was, "You shouldn’t let the sauce boil forever. The more it cooks, the more bitter it gets." Other standouts include shrimp scampi oreganata, the Stella sausage roll (a much-copied but never equaled take on a Chinese egg roll, filled with sausage, broccoli rabe and peppers) and, for dessert, the enormous, triangular sfogliata pastry, filled with custard.
If you can pass up the sfogliata, reward yourself with a treat across the street at the original Buttercooky Bakery (est. 1962), which now has satellites in Manhasset and Huntington. The café tables are surrounded on three sides by display cases that tempt you with some of Long Island’s best cakes and pies (I’m partial to the old-fashioned chocolate fudge cake and its junior partner, the chocolate fudge cupcake.) There’s also a lineup of exquisite individual pastries, from an ingot of chocolate and pistachio mousses layered with wafers to a passion-fruit eclair topped with what look like quail eggs but are actually tiny meringues filled with passion-fruit jam.
Ben Borgognone, scion of Alba Pasticceria in Brooklyn and a former pastry chef at The Plaza Hotel in Manhattan, bought Buttercooky from its original owners in 1994. When the neighboring florist closed two years ago, Borgognone intended to expand the bakery and café but his sons, Francesco and Ben Jr., convinced him to try a restaurant instead. BC Bistro opened this summer, and the boys put their hours where their mouths were: Once Francesco finishes the day managing the Huntington shop, he assumes his position as kitchen expeditor; Ben Jr., who manages Manhasset, creates and plates the desserts.
The Borgognones were determined not to make BC Bistro a savory afterthought to a sweet empire. They hired an experienced chef, Jorge Madrid, whose previous gigs included Restaurant Daniel and Union Square Cafe in Manhattan. "My bakery isn’t ordinary," said Borgognone the elder. "I didn’t want the restaurant to be ordinary." They opted for a classic yet contemporary interior — lots of white tile and warm wood — which doesn’t draw attention away from the artistry on plates of tuna tartare, say, or roast salmon or seared duck breast.
The lunch menu leans hard on brunch favorites such as challah French toast with berry-maple compote, lemon-ricotta pancakes, a hash of short ribs and eggs and a croque madame, that incomparable griddled sandwich of ham, Gruyère cheese, béchamel sauce and a fried egg. For dessert, there are pastries from next door and restaurant-only creations.
A block west of BC Bistro is Torigo, whose chef-owner Tony San is obsessed with sourcing the freshest fish he can find and showing it off to its best advantage. While there are a number of elaborate maki rolls on the menu, the smart play is to order whatever San suggests that day. He regularly serves a spectrum of tuna, from fatty to lean, and often has sea urchin from Japan, California and Maine. There might be red bigeye snapper, giant clam, abalone, sea bream, mackerel and horse mackerel, and live scallops,
If you’re itching to get to Jericho Turnpike, take a swing through the charming village of Floral Park, where the streets are named for flowers and an Irish bar seems to bloom on every corner: Jameson’s, McCarthy’s, J. Fallon’s and Jack Duggan’s are all within two blocks of one another. Floral Park is also home to the neo-traditional speak-easy Cork & Kerry (serving cocktails through the wee hours) and The Harrison, a swank tavern. A little east of "downtown" on Tulip Avenue is Sempre Fame (a Top 100 pick), which makes terrific barbecue and sandwiches and is also a great spot to pick up provisions if you plan on tailgating.
For the ultimate tailgating experience, however, you couldn’t do better than Tulip Caterers, an old-style deli (since 1956) that makes its own pastrami and corned beef. Many of the hero sandwiches here are named for sports stars; among them, the Barzal #13 honors the Islanders’ Mathew Barzal with roast beef, turkey, melted Swiss and Russian dressing. No matter what you order, make sure you get coleslaw and potato salad, both of them made fresh here daily.
At Croxley’s Ale House, the beer menu, one of the Island’s most extensive, features about 80 on tap or in bottles and cans. Five blocks south, where New Hyde Park Road crosses Hempstead Turnpike, you’ll encounter what may be Long Island’s most delicious culinary intersection: On the southeast corner is Frankly Thai, which has been serving some of the Island’s best Thai food since 2011. (For now, it only does takeout Thursday through Sunday.) Four doors east is Cheng Du; named for the capital of Sichuan province, it lives up to its name with tea-smoked duck, lush eggplant in garlic sauce, mouth-tingling dry-fried chicken, spicy-complex dan dan noodles and wontons in chili oil.
And then there is Chef Gigi’s Place. Pizza fanatics will know this narrow slice of a storefront as the original Naples Street Food, one of Long Island’s first Neapolitan wood- red pizzerias. In 2020, its founder, Gianluca Chiarolanza, decided to concentrate on his second location in Oceanside and he sold the Franklin Square spot to Gigi Sacchetti, an Italian chef who’d made a splash at Da Gigi in Lynbrook. Sacchetti kept the pizza, pizza oven and pizzaiolo, Giorgio Jeri, but introduced his own menu of two dozen pastas, almost all of which he makes himself.
Florentine by birth, Sacchetti has a deep respect for the pasta traditions of every region of Italy, and he does his best to showcase them here. From his native Tuscany, there’s pappardelle with fresh porcini mushrooms; from Lazio, bucatini all’Amatriciana and spaghetti carbonara; from Emilia-Romagna, tagliatelle Bolognese; from Naples, pacccheri with burrata and San Marzano tomatoes; from Puglia, orecchiette with sausage and broccoli rabe. The specials may feature luxury ingredients such as caviar, sea urchin and truffles. (To complete the fine-dining experience, you are free to BYOB.)
Elmont & Valley Stream
A mile down Hempstead Turnpike in Elmont is another shrine to Italian pizza and pasta. King Umberto has been serving pizza, pasta and Parms of the highest caliber since 1976, first at a modest pizzeria and now in a sprawling establishment that also encompasses a dining room furnished in white-tableclothed splendor. New for 2021 is a soaring glassed-in atrium and vast patio out back. The Italian American classics here are prepared as they ought to be — the calamari is delicate and crisp, the baked clams plump and savory, the veal Francese yields to the side of your fork and the house specialty, fried capellini balls, is a must-order. On the pizza front, partner John Cesarano is one of the Island’s foremost pizzaioli; his wares can be sampled in the pizzeria or in any of the three dining areas. The excellent service here is equaled by the deep wine cellar.
If you’ve tired of Italian, how about something completely different, like Guyanese food? At Flavor N’ Spice, which opened this summer in a little strip mall in Valley Stream, you can explore this fascinating cuisine that blends Caribbean, Indian and African flavors. Indo-Guyanese are the largest ethnic group in Guyana, a former British colony on the northern Atlantic coast of South America. When Britain outlawed slavery in 1834, a new source of labor was needed to work to work the sugar plantations, and thus began a migration of indentured servants from another British colony, India.
For Flavor N’ Spice owner Melanie R. Mohan, India — where three of her great-grandparents were born — is the wellspring of her goat and chicken curries, chickpea dal, braised bitter melon and roti flatbread. Guyana’s other culinary influences can be seen in the okra, brought with the enslaved from Africa, and cassava (yuca), a South American tuber, which is pounded into a creamy mash, then formed into balls or molded around hard-boiled eggs, which are dredged in annatto-tinged our and fried to a marigold hue.
With its Caribbean neighbors, Guyana shares a love of stewed oxtail and saltfish — that is, dried salt cod, baccala or bacalao — which was first brought over on European ships. (A long-standing source of protein, salt cod can be transported without fear of spoilage.) Flavor N’ Spice mashes it up and stuffs it into homemade rolls called "bakes." And, as in many South American countries, Chinese immigrants have made their mark with fried rice, lo mein and chow mein, all of which are on the menu at this friendly little shop. There are two tables for dining in and a colorful selection of groceries and soft drinks imported from Guyana. Mohan also makes fresh-squeezed juices.
There are a handful of Guyanese restaurants on Long Island but to my knowledge, there is only one serving the food of Nigeria, Mama Philo’s African Cuisine, which also opened this summer in Elmont. For owners Philomena and Femi Alabi, having a restaurant was a natural extension of their ministry, the Farmingdale-based Bethel of Praise. "As a pastor," Philomena said, "you are serving people, accommodating people, providing a place for the community — it’s the same here."
According to Femi, two dishes on the menu vie for "most popular." Jollof rice, cooked in a flavorful, tomato-stained broth that gets its heat from Scotch bonnet peppers, is served with a choice of braised meat or fried fish. Egusi is a hearty soup-stew, thickened with the ground melon seeds that give it its name. It is traditionally served with a ball of pounded yam, the flesh of an African tuber that has been peeled, chopped, boiled and mashed until it becomes a smooth white paste. Instead of a spoon, you use knobs of pounded yam to scoop up the egusi and convey it to your mouth. While Philomena runs the kitchen, Femi chats up the customers, most of whom he seems to know. He’s reason enough to dine at one of the three tables, but he will also happily pack up your meal to go.
From Mama Philo’s, it’s a straight shot up the Cross Island Parkway to UBS Arena. We’ve now traced a rough circle of restaurants, none of which are more than three miles away and all of which have the potential to distract you from the main event. Remember to check the time: You have a game to see.
BC BISTRO: 225 Jericho Tpke., Floral Park; 516-502-2478, bcbistro.com
BUTTERCOOKY BAKERY: 217 Jericho Tpke., Floral Park; 516-354-3831, buttercookybakery.com/floral-park
CHEF GIGI’S PLACE: 970 Hempstead Tpke., Franklin Square; 516-673-4630, chefgigisplace.com
CHENG DU: 947-949 Hempstead Tpke., Franklin Square; 516-358-1603, chengduny.com
CORK & KERRY: 143 Tulip Ave., Floral Park; 6 p.m. to 1 a.m. Wed. — Sun.
CROXLEY’S ALE HOUSE 129 New Hyde Park Rd., Franklin Square; 516-326-9542, croxley.com
FLAVOR N’ SPICE: 1577 Dutch Broadway, Valley Stream; 516-226-3518
FRANKLY THAI: 959 Hempstead Tpke., Franklin Square; 516-616-4393, franklythai.com
THE HARRISON: 86 S. Tyson Ave., Floral Park; 516-775-2682, theharrisonfp.com
KING UMBERTO: 1343 Hempstead Tpke., Elmont; 516-352-3232, kingumberto.com
MAMA PHILO’S AFRICAN CUISINE: 237-05 Linden Blvd., Elmont; 516-400-9743, mamaphilos.com
NANCY’S: 25541 Jericho Tpke., Floral Park; 718-343-4616, nancysrestaurant.net
SEMPRE FAME: 374 Tulip Ave., Floral Park; 516-488-7900, semprefame.com
STELLA RISTORANTE: 152 Jericho Tpke., Floral Park; 516-775-2202, stellaristorante.com
TORIGO: 196 Jericho Tpke., Floral Park; 516-352-1116, torigorestaurant.com
TULIP CATERERS: 1020 Tulip Ave., Franklin Square; 516-326-8081, tulipcaterers.com
UMBERTO’S: 633 Jericho Tpke., New Hyde Park; 516-437-7698, umbertosfamily.com