May 22, 2020

Third Space: A Look Back At What We’re Missing

by Joe Bonadio

The following was written in early March, before lockdowns and quarantines became a part of our lives. On rereading, it evoked a keen nostalgia for our bars and restaurants, the commons that we all share—and a profound ache for their return.

March 6, 2020, 3:05 PM

The bar at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana is sparsely occupied, enough so that I score a spot away from the door, and the damp chilly air on the other side of it.

Today, I had awoken to grey skies and the steady hiss of a gentle rainstorm. Being a sun child, such conditions tend to wash away my creative momentum on the best of days. But I know when to pivot, and by 2:30, I had already rejiggered my schedule. The remainder of this business day would fall under the category of “research”.

Another happy couple finds their oasis at the bar at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

One of Tony’s first hires and a longtime friend, Robvell was at the bar today, so it felt like a sure bet. I typically visit Tony’s for dinner, probably because I associate the experience with indulgence, and like to save the best for last. But Robvell usually worked lunch, and I always felt like I owed the dude a visit. So today would be the day.

Though he’s scarcely acknowledged me, by the time Robvell sets down my wine glass, a server is placing a steaming plate of meatballs on the bar in front of me. Unbidden and unbelievably good, they remind me for the dozenth time of my Calabrese grandmother Angeline, and the things she’d cook me back when I was still working on memorizing my home address.

The wine is a mouth-watering Montefalco Rosso, an elegant marriage of Sangiovese and Sagrantino that lends itself particularly well to the food here at Tony’s. The meatballs, a signature move of Robvell’s, pair with the wine beautifully. Five minutes into the dining experience, and I’m entirely immersed.

I had decided on my order ahead of time, and had been indulging in some pretty vivid anticipation over the previous couple of hours. At this point, I knew the menu practically by heart. I’d been living in North Beach for just three years when Tony opened Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, his flagship. Fortuitously, he chose a spot in the neighborhood, not quite three blocks from my apartment.

Having relocated from pizza-dense Lower Manhattan, I was understandably intrigued at the time. And even early on, Tony’s didn’t disappoint. In short order, Tony had hired half of the best people in the neighborhood—and just as quickly, his corner pizzeria had vaulted to the top of my list of must-haves. Ten years on, and I’m referred to in the most exalted of terms: I’m a regular.

A piping hot Detroit pizza sits atop the bar at Tony’s. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

There was just one pasta at Tony’s that I hadn’t yet tried, and today I was here to rectify that. Rigatoni with Broccoli Rabe* is a dish I’ve loved ever since I was a kid, and I’m especially crazy for fresh rigatoni (you don’t see it very often, and Tony makes it fresh every day). It was fixed in my mind: I would eat that dish, and do my damnedest to salvage this drab and dismal afternoon.

I sipped my wine, and within a few minutes had struck up a conversation with the couple to my left, on a pizza pilgrimage all the way from San Jose. Our server had just pulled up with their pizza, and was it a beauty: the Jersey Tomato Pie, one of my go-to favorites, with the sauce on top of the cheese and a crust that can’t be beat. It smelled heavenly, just good enough to cast momentary doubt upon my pasta plans. But I was here for the rigatoni, and would not be deterred.

A quiet scene on a recent evening in North Beach’s Washington Square Park. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

Happily, things exceed my expectations. It’s about the richest version of the dish I’ve ever tackled: toothsome rigatoni tossed with liberal amounts of broccoli rabe, pecorino Romano, cream, pancetta, garlic and red pepper flakes. Not exactly traditional, but even more satisfying than it sounds. It’s apparently portioned for a bodybuilder, but even after the meatballs, I take my time and house the entire dish. Robvell is roundly impressed.

Tucking contentedly into one last glass of Rosso, I look around, thinking of all the people I’ve known over the years that I’d like to bring to this place—to share this experience with.

Thankfully, there’s still time.

*Editor’s Note: The Rigatoni with Broccoli Rabe is not currently available for takeout and delivery. Get the Bucatini, you’ll love it. Meanwhile, Tony’s Pizza Napoletana will open for dine-in as soon as possible, and is always available for takeout and delivery.