VESPA ITALIAN KITCHEN & BAR
282 Main St., Farmingdale
AMBIENCE: Rustic with wood plank walls, salvaged wood tables, exposed brick and Edison-style bulbs
ESSENTIALS: Lunch and dinner 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday; Dinner, 4 to 10 p.m. Monday. Reservations for groups of 8 or more; accepts major credit cards, street parking, outdoor seating, wheelchair accessible, full bar, takeout.
If you knew Vespa Italian Kitchen & Bar was owned by the same team behind red-sauce restaurants Spuntino and Filetto’s in Suffolk County, you might suppose it’s more of the same. But for owner Ben Lo Manto, the new Farmingdale restaurant is the one he always hoped to open.
Shortly after 6-year-old Lo Manto arrived in Brooklyn from Sicily, he was sitting on milk crates, observing the scene in his uncle’s Cypress Hills pizzeria. It was those early years, eating his mom’s pasta con le sarde and seeing the storefronts spilling onto the sidewalks, that became the foundation of Vespa.
The open floor plan, which has a half-wall separating the dining room and bar, uses accordion-style windows to mimic a bustling streetscape that includes a few tables outside. The décor has a rustic-urban vibe with exposed brick, Edison-style lighting and plank wood walls. A long red-and-white bench, a nod to Lo Manto’s mom’s plastic-covered sofa, lines one wall, while a large wood-fired oven anchors the back.
Like Lo Manto’s other restaurants, Vespa’s menu has some classic Italian-American dishes, such as mozzarella sticks and meatballs. But sprinkled throughout the hot appetizers, salads, pizzas, soups, sides and entrees are some traditional touches. The pane and panelle is one such appetizer. An 8-inch-long hero, quartered and filled with rectangles of chickpea flour fritters, is a take on the common Sicilian street food consumed on the go. I peeled the golden panelle off the bland house-made bread, and topped them with lemon squirts and smears of the velvety, homemade ricotta, which is offered as a $2 upgrade.
Another crispy starter is the arancini Siciliani: four greaseless rice balls paired with a pomodoro sauce. The filling of seasoned chopped meat and peas is almost flawless, except for the barely-there amount of mozzarella. The meatballs and burrata appetizer included four golf-ball-sized rounds of moist, flavorful, but dense meat, saved by a creamy, oozing sphere of cheese.
The roaring wood-fired oven delivers a distinctively charred and airy funghi pizzetta that is notable for its sautéed button and portabella mushrooms and truffle oil drizzle. The flavor is earthy and peppery — the latter from a handful of arugula.
I tried two of the 10 pasta dishes and enjoyed both. The linguine with clam sauce has straightforward flavors from clam juice and garlic. Spread throughout the pasta are chopped clams, topped with about 10 tender whole ones. The noodles in the pappardelle melanzane (eggplant) have a wavy edge that grips the skin-on, creamy eggplant, plum tomato and Marsala wine sauce. Stir the spoonful of ricotta and ricotta salata toppers into the warm sauce and instantly turn the dish decadent.
The osso bucco is a hit on all three of its elements. A 28-ounce bone-in pork shank simmers in tomato sauce for four hours, until the meat yields to a fork and the liquid concentrates in flavor. The shank rests on a mushroom and green and yellow squash risotto creamy enough to be a stand-alone dish. The grilled sausage and broccoli rabe is another honest, tasty plate that relies on technique: the greens are blanched, then cooked past al dente, to remove the bitterness before meeting a dressing with oil and brined Moroccan olives.
Lo Manto’s wife and partner, Cynthia (their son Michael is also an owner), guides the Italian desserts, the best of which involve either ricotta or mascarpone cheese. The Italian-style cheese cake is looser and less sweet than dense New York style, but still creamy. The rich tiramisu, which uses mascarpone, as it by definition should, tastes less boozy than most, with an intense espresso flavor.
Vespa Italian Kitchen & Bar’s menu satisfies both those expecting cheese-laden, red-sauced Italian-American classics and anyone interested in trying honest, Old World dishes, all in a warm, casual setting.