Chazz: A Bronx Original
Despite some theme-restaurant flash, Chazz Palminteri's restaurant delivers on Italian basics
Published: September 14, 2011
Chazz Palminteri is all about keeping it real. This is what the actor—craggy-faced, hair slicked back, sporting a pristine white shirt over dark jeans—tells us as he strolls through his eponymous restaurant, on a midweek evening. He’s checking in with customers, visiting with a few friends, making small talk at the bar. “I live in upstate New York, and my wife says we don’t have power either,” he tells a family out for a post-hurricane meal. But they’ve got a generator, he adds, so it’s not so bad.
“Are you pleased with the restaurant?” he’s asked. Yes, he beams, he loves working with Baltimore restaurateurs Sergio and Alessandro Vitale of Aldo’s fame, and he loves the food they create. His favorite items on the menu? A veal meatball with whipped ricotta and the pizza margherita with fresh tomatoes and basil. It’s simple, he says of the pizza, but it’s the kind of food he grew up with in the Bronx. “I want food that is real,” he says emphatically.
Food and drink are perhaps the most authentic-feeling aspects of Chazz, however, whose dining room has a sort of slickness that unintentionally comes off as corporate rather than individual. Despite the Fordham Road subway sign near the entrance and the dining room murals of midnight street scenes, despite the antipasti station with its mozzarella and salumi bar, despite the pizza counter, all-white subway tiles, stainless steel, and red vinyl chairs, Chazz feels a little like the Disney re-creation of the Bronx, rather than the real deal. Noise levels are high, the result of a centrally located bar and a soundtrack devoted to indie rock (Spoon and Passion Pit where you might expect Dino and Sinatra). And service, while kind, lacks the sort of confidence and polish you’d expect from a restaurant that has been open roughly three months (for that matter, it’s odd that the web site offers no menu or information other than a short description and an opportunity to make a reservation via OpenTable).
That said, Chazz’s gastronomic focus is clear: Italian and Italian-American food made with quality ingredients. The salumi bar boasts the fabulous La Quercia, an American prosciutto made in Iowa, as well as Italian prosciutto cotto and finocchiona, a Tuscan fennel salami. Even a single portion ($7.95) makes a generous appetizer served with grilled ciabatta and a small serving of seasonal pickled vegetables—cauliflower, carrots, and onions in a house-made giardiniera on our visit. The mozzarella bar offers a choice of similarly thoughtful accompaniments, such as tomatoes dressed in aged balsamic vinegar or Calabrese-style roasted banana peppers stuffed with anchovy, garlic, and basil to complement your mozzarella di buffala or creamy burrata. That those peppers can be ordered separately as a side vegetable ($4.95) is a boon.
The rest of Chazz’s menu allows for similar flexibility. Pasta dishes like a mild linguini and shrimp fra diavalo ($12.95 for appetizer portion) can be ordered in appetizer or entrée sizes, and the list of “Bronx-style appetizers” are the restaurant’s take on small plates. Palminteri touted the veal meatball appetizer long after we had finished our meal, but one hopes it was better than our choices: a bland spinach- and ricotta-stuffed crespelle doused in bechamel sauce ($7.95) and a tepid mound of baccala served with fried capers, polenta points, and bruschetta ($8.95). Three plump arancini, rice balls stuffed with melting mozzarella, peas, and a dollop of beef Bolognese ($10.95), showed more character and were easy to share.
But as Chazz, the actor, intimated, the best things at Chazz, the restaurant, are the most simple. Although you can order the restaurant’s custom coal-fire-baked pizza in a myriad of toppings (and really, you should), even the pepperoni pizza from the kids’ menu ($5.95) showed off the pizza’s strengths: crisp crust with nary a burnt singe, pepperoni with just a bit of kick, and a sweet and fresh tomato sauce. To paraphrase Chazz, it tastes real. My favorite thing on the menu, however, is the pork Milanese panini ($11.95). If breaded, fried pork is a guilty pleasure, convict me now. This is one delicious sandwich, not in the least because its gentle frying is cut by a helping of garlicky broccoli rabe.
Chazz is also doing a fine job with its bar list, which features a pale and India pale ale contract-brewed for the restaurant; a thoughtful selection of mostly Italian wines from Sardinia to the Alto Aldige, organized by style (see “Nervosi, the nervous ones: white wines defined by edginess and acidity structure” or “Aggressivi, the aggressive ones: red wines defined by tannins and structure”); and a creative list of cocktails, including a gin martini lashed with orange known as the Bronx Cocktail and Chazz’s take on the old-fashioned, dubbed the Cardinal Sin. With its 5-7 p.m. happy hour, Chazz’s bar could easily become a Harbor East post-work go-to.
Palminteri drops by his restaurant once or twice a month, according to the staff, who praise his generosity to employees and customers alike. Case in point: He visited our table (without knowing we were there for a review) after we had paid our bill and were packing up to go. “Did you have dessert?” he asked. No room, we explained. “You have to have the Nutella pizza,” he insisted. “I’m going to send one to your table.” And he did. The pizza is a simple dough slathered with the chocolate-hazelnut spread and dusted with confectioner’s sugar. To critique it would be churlish in the face of such generosity.
Like its proprietor, Chazz: A Bronx Original aims to please, and for a certain diner, be it the tourist looking for something reliable and familiar in an unfamiliar city or the after-work crowd looking for good drinks and a bit of dinner, Chazz will do just that.
Open 7 days for lunch and dinner.
> Email Mary K. Zajac