SD # 15: Donato’s. Who knew “they’ve got the conch” would be a recurring theme?

Once upon a time, there were a lot more Italian-Americans in this part of Queens than there are now. Several remnants of that era still exist here. Ottomanelli’s butcher shop on Woodside Avenue, V&V Bakery underneath the 61st St subway station, and Donato’s Pizzeria at 50-22 39th Ave.  Okay, actually Donato’s has only been there since 1999, but it looks and feels like it’s been there a lot longer.  We’ve patronized the butcher and the bakery in the past and been very happy with both (pignoli cookies… mmmmmmmm), but we’ve never gotten around to trying Donato’s. Fortunately, serial dining finally brought us there. After our trip to El Rey Del Taco, the next two entries on our serial dining list were these:

Dhaka Club & Restaurant, 5915 37th Ave
Donatos Pizzeria Restaurant, 5022 39th Ave

Dhaka Club is actually a catering hall, but we dutifully drove by and took a picture just to prove we couldn’t actually eat there:

Dhaka Club, closed up tonight on a Friday afternoon

Locked up tight.  So, on to Donato’s.  We’ve driven past this place dozens of times, and I’d been really looking forward to trying it, because it looked like such a classic Italian-American neighborhood family restaurant.  And it is.  Places like this remind me of being a kid and being constantly surrounded by Italian-American relatives and neighbors, and eating that food.  Just for fun, here are some photos of my Italian-American ancestors:

This is my grandmother in 1960, taken during my father’s high school graduation party.  (That’s my dad standing to the left of her.)  If it looks to you like the party was in the cellar, that’s because it was.  Everybody in my grandparents’ generation or before had an extra kitchen in the cellar of their house, and all the really big family meals took place down there.  I didn’t realize until many years later that this is peculiar to Italian-Americans.  Anyway, I have lots of happy memories of eating simple, homemade Italian food, lovingly prepared by my grandmother, her sister, or some other amazing woman no more than a generation or two off the boat.

Here’s another photo.  The man in the center is my great-great-grandfather, surrounded by all of his great-grandchildren on his birthday:

To get a feel for what the Italian-American experience was like for the kids in this picture (who all lived in NJ) and for the Italian-Americans in Queens who ate at places like Donato’s long before we got there, check out this fantastic narrative on YouTube:

So what I’m saying is, places like Donato’s are part of my family heritage, and I was really jazzed to try it out.  Here’s what it looks like from the outside:

Donato’s is the total package:  a pizza take-out counter in front, an eat-in restaurant with a full menu in the back, and outdoor seating on the sidewalk outside.  It was hotter than Hades on the way we went, so we decided to eat in the dining room.  Here’s what it looks like on the inside:

As you can see, this is SUCH a classic Italian joint.  If you were making a movie and you needed to shoot a scene inside a classic American Italian restaurant, this is where you’d go.  From the stained-glass shades on the hanging lights to the Italian-themed carnation centerpieces to the balsamic vinegar and olive oil ready for dunking your bread or dressing your salad as soon as it hits the table, this place has everything you need for an Italian-American dining experience.  I didn’t take pictures of them, but yes, there’s a porcelain pig and a big bottle of garlic cloves in olive oil decorating the dining room.

But the most important question is:  How is the food?  There are lots of reviews of Donato’s online.  You can read about it on Yelp, Chowhound, foursquare, the Queens Gazette, the Sunnyside Post, and Urban Spoon.

Reviewers have mixed opinions on the quality of the food, the speed and friendliness of the service, and the prices.  I have to say, the service was inexcusably slow the day we were there.  You can see from the picture that this is not a busy place on Friday afternoons, yet we waited darn near forever for our salads, our entrees, AND our check.  So yeah, the service?  Not so great.

The food, on the other hand, was good.  I had calamari and scungili salad followed by baked ziti.  I had to.  I mean, is there any dish that says “East Coast Italian-Amerian home cooking” like baked ziti?  Allan had the penne a la vodka lunch special, which came with a green salad.  The calamari and scungili salad was made fresh, and in fact the squid and conch were still warm from having just been cooked.  They were dressed in garlic and olive oil and served over greens with lemon.  It was incredible.  My grandmother used to get this salad from an Italian seafood shop in New Jersey, and by definition it was made well in advance.  This was WAY better than that.  I would go back to Donato’s just to eat this.  Here it is:

Calamari & Scungili Salad from Donato's

Both pasta dishes were good.  They’re both simple dishes, and anybody looking for something fancy or modern will be disappointed with them, but if you’re looking for something your little Italian grandmother would have made (which I was), you will be more than satisfied.  I’ve had baked ziti in a handful of other places in the city over the years, and this is by far the best I’ve tried.  For that matter, since I grew up in a heavily Italian-American part of New Jersey, every single potluck supper my parents ever dragged me to as a child had at least two big aluminum foil pans full of baked ziti, and this was better than anything I remember as a kid.  The portions are HUGE, so if you order pasta there, plan on bringing home leftovers and having pasta for lunch the next day.  Here are the pasta dishes:

Penne a la Vodka

Baked Ziti

So the food was good, but the service was frustratingly and puzzlingly slow.  Would we go back?  Possibly.  As I was reading reviews of Donato’s online, I saw several people say Sapori D’Ischia is a much better restaurant.  I guess we’ll find out when we make it that far down the serial dining list.  Until then, when I’m craving some Italian-American home cooking, this is where I’ll go.

Total cost for the meal was about $40.

Donato's Restaurant on Urbanspoon

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