My Aunt Josephine, still as lean as a beanpole, has firm ideas about dieting: a good, solid breakfast followed by a hearty lunch, a midafternoon snack (fruit and cookies) and a "simple" dinner that includes a soup or salad, a nice bowl of pasta, some grilled meat, and a healthy dessert, such as spumoni or chocolate cake. "That was how your grandfather ate, and he lived to be 86 years old!"
I could happily follow that diet plan if it meant eating all of my dinners at Osteria Il Centro, the cozy Italian joint at the corner of 51st Street and Main. For the past decade (the anniversary is on St. Patrick's Day), owner Gregg Johnson has been serving inexpensive dinners in an attractive neighborhood dining room with pretty servers, an eclectic music mix on the sound system -- I've heard everything from 1980s dance music to 1940s Tommy Dorsey big-band tunes -- and really tasty food.
I once described the restaurant's cuisine to a friend as "accessible Italian," somewhere in the middle of a continuum with the Olive Garden at one end and Garozzo's Ristorante at the other. Don't cringe -- it's a good thing. My Aunt Josephine, a very good cook in her own right, would be thrilled with the eight pasta dishes, the chicken Marsala and the lamb chops put out by Il Centro's chef, the Mexican-born Jaime Segado. It's consistent, it's fresh-tasting, and the portions are more than generous -- hell, on many nights I'm thrilled to be eating there.
The restaurant's name translates roughly as tavern in the center -- of the city, I assume, given that it's in the heart of midtown. And if the ambience is more saloon than salumeria, well, that's what makes the place so comfortable. The food is middlebrow Italian; anything too sophisticated would be incongruous in this setting, where the dominant decorative feature is the massive wooden bar on the east side of the room, where smokers can congregate over a glass of vino and a sigaretta or two.
Stand-up tables with steep chairs fill the more raucous north side of the tiny dining room (it seats only 72), where smoking is permitted. On the south side, tables and banquettes are swathed in white linen, and the mood is slightly more decorous. On one visit, Bob and I noted that the over-40 patrons (including two tables of prim, middle-aged lesbians in four-button sport coats) preferred the south side. Younger couples headed immediately for the bar side.
"It's a great people-watching place," Bob said as he took a visual inventory of the eclectic clientele in the smoking section that night: a couple of sexy twentysomethings in leather jackets; a languid beauty and her chubby sugar daddy; a bearded, sixtyish professor type and his earth-mother companion; and a "mixed" gay couple (a handsome tall guy with his squat, trollish date).
I bit my tongue when the waiter arrived carrying our water glasses by the rims (who trained him?), letting it slide only because he was so perky and personable. Those two qualities almost concealed the glaring truth: He was an awful waiter. Not that it matters here, because none of these kids are clawing their way up to a captain's job in a four-star bistro. They're newly minted pasta schleppers, and what they lack in style, they more than make up for in candor. There was, for instance, the hungover waitress who told us about her party the previous night. I wanted to tip her just for giving a brilliant monologue.