St. James is a town that knows how to eat. For a hamlet of about 14,000 people — and one that lacks a traditional Main Street — St. James is knee deep in places to chow down. That wealth of restaurants, bakeries, cafes and pizzerias clusters along its northern border on Route 25A (aka North Country Road) but also extends down Lake Avenue to its southern tier, a stretch of Route 25 dotted with car dealerships.
The Italian effect is strong here: There are at least five local pizzerias (Rocco’s Pizza & Pasta among them), two Italian bakeries, a pasta-and-sausage shop (St. James Pasta & Pork) and Italian restaurants of every stripe, from casual to studied. Woven into that Roman fabric are two places to get breakfast, a Middle Eastern bistro, a sushi spot and Chinese takeout, several bistros, a steakhouse, a temple to Tex-Mex food and a meat store, Mercep Bros. Meats, which draws its share of chefs.
One of those, chef Jonathan Contes of Eat Mosaic, exudes big love for the community where he’s operated for 14 years, drawing both a local following and diners from New York City and beyond. “There’s no Main Street, but there’s a heartbeat. [St. James] has nothing, and it has everything,” said Contes. “It’s the kind of place where people hold the door open for you, where you can leave your door unlocked.”
Something akin to that happens each morning at BLT Cafe on Lake Avenue, a no-frills luncheonette where many diners seem to know each other, swapping news from counter to table. Jose Blanco was a cook here for 12 years here before purchasing the cafe from its former owners two years ago. “I took the chance,” said Blanco, and he does not regret it: Blanco, who still cooks, is so tight with his customers that he’s shared keys with a few who like to come in at 5 a.m. for their morning coffee. They make coffee and turn on the grill for him, he said, so it’s hot when he comes into work around 6 — and if nonregulars happen by during that in-between hour, the early risers will sell them coffee. “But I tell them not to cook anything,” Blanco half-jokes.
That about typifies St. James, a town that seems close-knit in a way that’s faded from other Long Island communities. “It’s an old-fashioned place,” Blanco said.
Here are some of the standouts among the many eateries in this food-dense burg.
Barbera Pasta e Vino
Barbera Pasta e Vino (412 North Country Rd.): This charming, immaculate Italian bistro has sunny yellow banquettes, a smattering of tables and a menu focused almost entirely on pasta, at least for the main course. Chef Jon Manougian’s fettuccine Bolognese has a following, but less quotidian pastas, such as fettuccine alla Fiesolana — with tomatoes, cream and smoky bacon — make appearances, too. Barbara Manougian, Jon’s spouse, runs the front of house with wit and humor. More info: 631-584-0113
Basil Cafe & Restaurant
Basil Cafe & Restaurant (413 Lake Ave.): Chef Ray Akhlaghi dubs the food he serves inside this snug, romantic bistro “Persian-Italian.” The spice profile runs to saffron, pepper, turmeric, coriander and sumac, with occasional hits of mint, barberry and parsley — plus lots of garlic — and kebabs share the menu with pasta, rack of lamb and flatbreads. Akhlaghi is a master of rice: His perfumed basmati complements many dishes, such as masterful zereshk polo, marinated chicken breast with buttery, saffron-laced onions, crumbled pistachios and tart barberry seeds. More info: 631-862-4444, rayaklagi.wixsite.com/basilcaferestaurant
BLT Cafe (521 Lake Ave.): If there were a “Cheers” among luncheonettes, BLT Cafe would be it. The place hops from breakfast through lunch with diners who banter with each other as they tuck into scrambled eggs, French toast or hulking Cubano sandwiches. Owner Jose Blanco also mans the grill, a position he held for 12 years before purchasing the place two years ago. Blanco has enlisted many family members to help, and he will soon introduce tacos and other south-of-the-border dishes to the time-honored roster of burgers, sandwiches and classic American breakfasts. More info: 631-584-4229
Del Fuego Tex-Mex
Del Fuego Tex-Mex (430 North Country Rd.): This casual, saloon-like temple to Tex-Mex emphasizes the fresh and the housemade on a menu that travels from fajitas to filet mignon, dry-rubbed ribs to fish tacos, as well as burritos, quesadillas and the usual Tex-Mex players. The prices are moderate, the tequila is plentiful and the place is often filled to the brim. More info: 631-963-6900, delfuegorestaurant.com
Eat Mosaic (418 North Country Rd.): Expect the unexpected at Mosaic, where chefs Jonathan Contes and Tate Morris have conjured rule-breaking, five-course tasting menus in an elegant setting for 14 years. Diners don’t know what they’re in for until food hits the table, but the relationships these chef-owners have built with neighboring farm stands, butchers and fishmongers means the best pickings of every season land on their plates. The five-course meals (currently $86) can run to three hours or more, with a supporting cast of superb wines, beers and cocktails, plus charming appearances by Contes. More info: 631-584-2058, eatmosaic.com
Garguilo’s Bakery (503 Lake Ave.): Inside this unassuming brick building near the railroad tracks is carb heaven: Racks loaded with breads and baguettes, plus cakes, cookies and doughnuts, as well as a counter cornucopia of focaccia, danishes and Irish soda bread. Baker Michael Garguilo comes in around the time most of us are going to bed to load up the racks for the 5 a.m. daily open; his wife Kathy and son Michael also help run the place. The butter cookies and chocolate meltaways (a chocolate-coffee ring with the nickname “crack cake”) have devoted followings. Those in lunch mode can go the savory route with chicken potpie or quiche Lorraine. More info: 631-584-9400, garguilosbakery.kpsearch.com
Husk & Vine Kitchen & Cocktails
Husk & Vine Kitchen & Cocktails (655 Middle Country Rd.): Chef Nicholas Trovato changes his small-plate menu every Wednesday inside this newish spot, where the barroom feels like a stylish roadhouse and the dining room, more formal. Dishes hopscotch around the world, from Korean-style short ribs to tuna poke to a tender Wagyu burger layered with bacon, smoked Cheddar and tomato jam. There’s a lengthy craft beer list, hearty whiskey cocktails and plenty of wine, too. More info: 631-250-9616, huskandvineny.com
NoCo Kitchen Wine and Cocktails
NoCo Kitchen Wine and Cocktails (429 North Country Rd.): This polished New American restaurant — owned by the same group that runs Del Fuego across the street — is one of the hamlet’s newest additions. A dedicated eat-at-the-bar clientele sip wine and $12 cocktails with starters such as Peconic Bay scallop ceviche, fried oysters with Thai green-papaya slaw and local clams al forno with chorizo, fennel and rye bread crumbs. Those throwing down for a more formal meal might tuck into seared breast and leg of duck confit with chanterelle risotto or strozzapreti with wild-boar Bolognese and carrot-top pesto. More info: 631-250-9600, nocostjames.com
Pietro Cucina Italiana
Pietro Cucina Italiana (404 North Country Rd.): A certain aura clings to this old farmhouse on the edge of town on North Country Road, where Restaurant Mirabelle got its start in 1984 and, later, Kitchen A Bistro spent 20 years. Its latest tenant is named for owner Pietro Molendini, who presides over a buzzy and atmospheric nouveau Italian spot with a tiny bar, witty service and occasionally long waits for a table. The salumi is first-rate; the roasted octopus and crisped, peppery goat cheese are starter standouts, and the lasagna rustica, with chestnuts among the noodles, sauce and cheese, is heavenly. More info: 631-862-6129, pietro631.com
Soul Brew (404 North Country Rd.): Take loads of coffee (both hot and cold-brewed), plenty of smoothies and pastries and a menu dense with scrambles, pancakes, panini and melts; combine those with funky artwork, occasional live music and a marble bar that serves beer and wine, and you have Soul Brew: A kinetic place that seems perpetually filled and festive, as well as highly caffeinated. More info: 631-250-9238, soulbrew.coffee
Spuntino (420 North Country Rd.): St. James has its fair share of Italian places, and each seem to fill a specific niche. For Spuntino, that role would be something akin to Italian diner: An airy, vibrant space with a coal-fired oven turning out lots of pizza. That, in turn, is sold by the slice on one side of Spuntino, while the other is a comfy dining room with plenty of booths, warm service and a menu that covers all of the Italian bases: thin-crust pizzettes, namely, and dozens of pasta dishes, from the traditional (fettuccine carbonara) to the less so (zucchini noodles with eggplant and tomato sauce). More info: 631-686-6700, spuntinostjames.com
The Trattoria (532 North Country Rd.): Unpretentious, tiny and tricky to find, The Trattoria sets a benchmark for Italian cuisine on Long Island. Chef Steven Gallagher’s daily changing menu is inventive and seasonal, including sea scallops with black garlic aioli and grilled ramps, and bucatini carbonara. His red-wine braised beef, or brasato, on polenta excels, as does saffron malloreddus with shrimp, spinach and tomato confit. Don’t skip dessert, but bring cash, and maybe wine: This is a no-credit card restaurant, as well as BYOB. More info: 631-584-3518, thetrattoriaresaurant.com
Vintage Prime Steakhouse
Vintage Prime Steakhouse (433 North Country Rd.): This is the neighborhood steakhouse, a friendly place with a clubby, almost theatrical dining room and plenty of tender chops: porterhouse, T-bone, filet mignon, Kobe steak. You can bookend the meal with shellfish cocktails and augment it with creamed spinach and potatoes — this is about as classic as it gets. More info: 631-862-6440, vintageprimesteakhouse.com