429 Plandome Rd., Manhasset
SERVICE: Solicitous with occasional lapses due to language barrier
AMBIENCE: Hopping neighborhood hangout
ESSENTIALS: Open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Wheelchair accessible, back entrance abuts a public parking lot.
The neighborhood pizzeria is the backbeat of the Long Island dining scene. It’s the place you go to grab a quick slice on the go, whose booth you sink into, exhausted, on a Friday night to drown the week’s sorrows in a deep bowl of pasta, where Dad takes the kids when Mom has to work late.
Umberto Corteo knows this song by heart. Since 1965, the little pizzeria he founded in New Hyde Park has matured into a grand restaurant-caterer and spawned satellite Umbertos in Bellmore, Plainview, Wantagh, Lake Grove and Garden City.
The newest Umberto’s, which opened in Manhasset in April, ticks all the requisite boxes, with a sleek, new look and a tweaked menu, courtesy of a passionate young chef-general manager. Mike Di Santolo, who spent most of his first 29 years working in restaurants in Naples, moved to Long Island four years ago to join his uncle Umberto’s family business.
Among his innovations are the 10-inch pizzettas, made to order from such contemporary combinations as porcini with caramelized walnuts and truffle oil, and prosciutto with arugula and mozzarella. The simple Margherita highlights Umberto’s chewy-but-delicate crust, vibrant marinara and mozzarella that’s made on the premises. The sexiest of the seven pizzettas, though, is unquestionably the cafona, which features slices of bronzed, rosemary-roasted potatoes, slices of capocollo (cured pork shoulder), dollops of mascarpone and grape tomatoes.
The pizzettas are a worthy addition to the troika of Neapolitan, Sicilian and Grandma pies that have made Umberto’s famous. You’ll see all of them in the glass-fronted pizza display, along with assorted calzones, garlic knots, rice balls and panini, which are made with crusty, homemade rolls. I certainly did not want to refuse an offer of a Corleone panino, and I was richly rewarded with a meaty, creamy, tart and spicy mouthful of fried chicken cutlet, broccoli rabe, mozzarella and cherry peppers.
The pizza counter occupies one half of the long, narrow storefront. On the other side of a marble-tiled column is a surprisingly elegant dining room, complete with fancy Edison light fixtures, lush red banquettes and, at the back, a couple of booths where you might forget that you are in a pizzeria.
Once seated, before you do anything else, order the fried calamari, veiled with the lightest dusting of flour and fried to a pale gold. Another winning starter is the zuppa di Napoli, a pile of littleneck and Manila clams and mussels and a big shrimp sitting atop slices of toasted bread that absorb the juices for a delicious finale. Baked clams, however, suffered under wet and gummy breading.
Umberto’s menu lists more than two dozen pastas, but I didn’t taste one that floated my boat. Spaghetti marinara was overcooked and oversauced. Rigatoni di Procida comprised bland escarole, bland cannellini beans and weirdly bland sausage. There was no amount of salt or cheese that could perk up this dish. Spaghetti alle vongole, which Di Santolo said he had tweaked for this location, involved a light, tomato-driven broth, but there weren’t nearly enough Manila clams requisitioned to appreciably flavor it.
The entree menu sticks almost entirely to Italian-American classics — Parms, Marsalas, Franceses, Milaneses — and usually aces them. Veal Francese was fork-tender and lightly sauced (though the accompanying zucchini was overcooked; carrots, undercooked). Shrimp oreganata was an unqualified success, and I’d advise asking for a side of plain pasta to make the most of the garlicky sauce when the shrimp are gone.
A “modern” main, however, is one of Umberto’s most popular. Chicken with broccoli rabe is an all-American assemblage of grilled, skinless chicken breasts obscured by a heap of broccoli rabe and cherry peppers. It was as satisfying as it was virtuous and, if you possess the restraint to leave some over, it makes for a good cold lunch the next day.
Of course, virtue and that restraint tend to be in short supply at Umberto’s. If you’ve made it through your meal without something fried or covered with cheese (or both), that’s your cue to order dessert. Luckily, Umberto’s serves the excellent gelato made by Caffe Italia in Deer Park.