Sempre Fame Gourmet Grill & BBQ Catering
374 Tulip Ave., Floral Park
SERVICE: Whether taking out or eating in, counter service is friendly and swift.
AMBIENCE: Restaurant meets rec room
ESSENTIALS: Open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday to Thursday, to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, to 7 p.m. Sunday; metered street parking, handicap accessible
The Cavallo brothers were always big eaters. During summers when they were boys, John and Chris (now 35 and 31) would accompany their father back to Colliano, his ancestral hometown in Italy. “We would basically eat all day long,” recalled John, “and we developed a reputation. When we’d pass people on the street, they’d greet us with ‘sempre fame’ which means ‘always hungry’ in Italian.”
When the brothers started a catering company in 2011, there was no question that Sempre Fame was going to be the name. And when they quit their day jobs in 2013 and took over a modest deli in Floral Park, “Sempre Fame” was emblazoned over the door.
Despite the Italian name, Sempre Fame Gourmet Grill & BBQ Catering is dedicated to the American art of barbecue. There’s a little reclaimed wood siding on the counter, and a few trinkets suggesting the Old West (a pair of mounted longhorns here, a five-pointed star there), but most of the Cavallos’ time and effort has gone into the food.
Sempre Fame’s traditional barbecue scores winning marks across the board. Ribs were smoked to that precise point where they were tender but still required teeth to separate them from the bone. Pulled pork shoulder had been shredded and mashed with sauce into lush oblivion. Chicken, a little salty for my palate, was not only smoked but grilled so the skin crisped up before being slathered with sauce.
Along with judicious rubbing and smoking, that final slick of barbecue sauce is Sempre Fame’s not-so-secret weapon. It hit my sweet spot — and also my spicy, salty and sour spots.
Beef brisket was properly jiggly, and so juicy that it needed no sauce. But I was less enthralled with the smoked corned beef. Traditional corned beef is a brisket that has been preserved by brine, not smoke, and the combination here left the meat rubbery and tasting of little else but salt. (The deli tradition has produced a beef dish that combines brining and smoking and prodigious spicing; it’s called pastrami.)
The Cavallos take an old-school approach to their smoked meats, but their extensive sandwich menu is more suited to the tastes of millennial food Instagrammers. Sandwiches are piled high between two slices of double-thick “Texas toast” and come neatly wrapped in wax paper so, uncut, they resemble glossy cubes.
Sandwich fillings range from simple brisket or grilled chicken to tweaked standards (a Reuben with smoked corned beef, a Cuban with pulled pork) to wackadoo combos designed for maximum likes. I went for the wackadooiest. The Clogs (the nickname of the regular customer who inspired it) is a gooey pileup of brisket, bacon, fried chicken cutlets, barbecue sauce and melted mozzarella. I simultaneously bemoaned the state of our culinary culture while being unable to stop eating this monstrosity.
Burgers get the same over-the-top treatment: the Slob (named for itself) entails a bacon cheeseburger topped with pulled pork and slaw. I played it safe with a bacon cheeseburger and found the patty itself cooked beyond my requested medium-rare.
Every burger comes with stellar French fries that are hand-cut, fried to a dark gold and well seasoned with salt and pepper. In fact, all the sides we had were winners: baked beans, made with tiny, still-firm navy beans; coleslaw made with little more than lacy shreds of cabbage, mayonnaise and celery seed. The classic American mac-and-cheese proves, once again, that it’s hard to improve on melted Velveeta.
Among Sempre Fame’s “snacks,” I was won over by the clean, savory chili, whose blend of cumin, chili and cayenne complemented rather than drowned out the beef and beans. And I liked the wings, smoked and then fried, even better than the regular barbecued chicken. I appreciated that they were not completely covered in sauce but had bald spots that allowed the taste of the chicken to come through.
In fact, that vaunted sauce had a tendency to surface in dishes that would have been better without it. The crispy-greasy pork rinds, for example, would have been better naked. A BLT made with thick slices of smoked pork belly and unripe tomatoes was also thrown out of balance by the sauce. I could discern no cheese, no cilantro, no chipotle nor tomatillo in a pulled-pork quesadilla, only barbecue sauce.
None of these missteps stopped me from overeating on every visit to Sempre Fame. If the sign greeting customers on their way in means “always hungry,” the sign that they see on the way out could honestly read “never hungry.”