On the eve of the New York City Marathon, the Bamonte’s barroom teems with people. As they come and go, a fringed lampshade hovering above a defunct cigarette machine shimmies with the draft.
Mike, the vested, bowtied bartender, shakes drinks and pours red wine from bulky magnum bottles. A marathon runner and his daughter eat iceberg salads next to a pair of 30-something Brooklynites sipping Martinis (gin, up, with twists) next to a middle-aged couple indulging in a post-prandial cocktail. Beyond are a couple of beer-filled refrigerators and two wooden phone booths whose obsolescence goes unacknowledged by anyone. Heads turn as the steaming vodka sauce wafts by; it’s as if a celebrity just entered the room. An older gentleman with a New Jersey accent orders a Bloody Mary (it’s 7 p.m.), and a man in a tight button-down shirt and gold chain is requesting a table for 11 people—no easy bargain on a Saturday night in New York City. But not to worry—he knows a guy.
Bamonte’s is a beloved red sauce joint in Williamsburg with all of the trappings: septuagenarian waiters in tuxes, white tablecloths, mozzarella swathed meat cutlets, cheap Chianti. There’s a menu thick with classics—fettuccine Alfredo, baked ziti, veal scaloppini marsala, clams casino. In the dining room, heavy red velvet drapes hang floor-to-ceiling and dozens of paintings and photos line its walls. A Dodgers pennant—Brooklyn, not LA—flies proudly against red wallpaper, as does a gilded Roman bust and an oversized canvas depicting the birth of Venus. But inside this 118-year-old mecca of Italian-American cuisine is one of Brooklyn’s best bars.
Essentially a two-story house on a quiet residential street in Williamsburg, Bamonte’s, which was originally called Liberty Hall, was founded in 1900 by Pasquale Bamonte, an immigrant from Salerno. Smack dab in the middle of what is arguably America’s hippest, increasingly expensive destination neighborhood, Bamonte’s feels like a particularly potent symbol for what’s been erased amid New York’s constant reinvention. The original family still owns it—Pasquale’s grandson, Anthony Bamonte, and his daughter, Nicole, run it—as well as other buildings on the street. So, while nearby warehouses are rehabbed and 12-story condos encroach, Bamonte’s can close for two or three weeks in August without having to worry about a thing.
“This place is, like, a hundred years old,” says a patron as he passes through the lounge. “Mob guys used to come here.” Indeed, they did. Just back in 2009, “Fat Tony” Rabito of the Bonanno crime family, was forbidden to return to several Italian-American establishments, including Don Peppe, Rao’s and Bamonte’s. There are framed photos of their Hollywood corollaries including James Gandolfini, who shot three episodes of The Sopranos here.
Step Inside the Bar at Bamonte's
There is no music at Bamonte’s, but the dining room is full and the din is a melody of clinking forks, tipsy voices and a cappuccino machine’s bluster. “It’s been a killer day,” says Mike as he uncorks another magnum of red. Weekends are busy from lunchtime on, he says, especially this one. The place always seems to be full of people celebrating something. There are engagement parties and family reunions, graduation toasts and spontaneous Saturday evening parties of 11. With its round white tables, red pleather-seated chairs and highly lit candelabras, it has the feel of a 1970s banquet hall. Which is to say, there is nothing cool about Bamonte’s, except its stubborn resistance to change. And, of course, its retro bar room, which simultaneously conjures a Goodfellas set piece and a Wisconsonite mancave stuck in time.
“Hey Mike! How ya been?” somebody yells. An elderly waiter from Croatia named Sylvio arrives to the end of the bar to collect a drink order. Mike chats with a couple of people twirling pasta around their forks, while Nicole Bamonte’s blonde mane bobs to and fro, she’s taking phone calls and ushering people through the dining room divider.
One of the 30-somethings leans across the bar, toppling her cocktail glass. Horror of horrors: A Martini overboard. Gin, a whisper of vermouth—which one must request, otherwise you’ll simply be drinking cold gin—and lemon twist ebb across the bar, soaking maroon paper placemats. But within seconds, Mike is there, sopping it up with a bar rag. “Don’t worry,” he says, “I’ve got you covered.” She and her companion order clams oreganata and an antipasti salad to mitigate the freshened Martini. A basket of delightfully spongy bread and gold foil wrapped butter squares is presented.
Eventually, the clams oreganata arrive with bread-crumbs aplenty, as does the antipasti salad: hunks of provolone, cubes of salami, big green olives, roasted red peppers. Mike is busy setting people up with placemats, silverware and fresh drinks, and guests sated with fra diavolo and Frangelico traipse out, past the shimmying lampshade. As the clock strikes 8 p.m., a new set of guests arrives and the vibe changes. It’s a younger crowd, peppered with destination diners who have come for the novel frippery, rather than the succor of Old-World reminiscence. But the red sauce joint doesn’t judge; it simply welcomes in everybody with a sweep of the arm and a glass full of Chianti. A couple of Sambuca shots are poured and Sylvio is back to scoop up little goblets full of wine.
“What did they do here when Prohibition came around?” asks a customer at the bar. Sylvio, in his Croatian lilt, says, “They drank outta coffee cups, whaddya think? Nobody stopped serving booze for a second.”
Tip: On weekend evenings, arrive at the bar a touch before the dinner rush to grab a seat at the bar where you can order the full menu. If ordering wine by the bottle, your best bet is the Monsanto Chianti Classico Riserva. End-of-eve tiramisu is best accompanied by a fluffy house cappuccino dressed up with a little Frangelico. Bamonte’s | 32 Withers Street; 718-384-8831