My friend Bob has a vowel on the end of his name, and he proudly hails from New Jersey, so when he told me to check out Bistro 42 in Prospect for its great Italian* food, I figure he knows what he’s talking about.
Um, what’s with that asterisk on “Italian*”?
To put it gently, Italian family cookery in the U.S. three or four generations removed from Ellis Island is not much like real Italian food from Italy, or even the more upscale fare served at fancy “Northern Italian” spots.
Like all the other ethnic streams that comprise the beautiful mix of cultures that make us American, Italian immigrants brought steamer trunks full of heart-warming music and art, song and dance, culture and food — especially food — that have become part of us all.
Truly, what could be more American than spaghetti and meatballs and pizza pie? And lasagna, and lots of other good stuff, too. Sausage! Italian sausage, that is, juicy links redolent of ground meats and aromatic fennel and spice?
In fact, Bob said, “Be sure to get the sausage. They make their own, and it is amazing.” He was right, too. On a sandwich or in marinara sauce, it’s meaty, textured, fennel-scented, juicy and delicious.
If you don’t get to the Prospect area much, this little shopping-center space might not be on your radar, even though it’s been around since the summer of 2009. It’s so far to the back of a large shopping center that’s dominated by a Kroger and a bunch of other eateries, you’re not likely to spot its discreet sign from U.S. 42, the highway that gives the bistro its name.
Even when you work your way into that sprawling parking lot — it may help to know that the main road swings left, so you have to turn right to park — you’ve got to search for the small “Bistro 42” sign between a nail shop and a cafe.
Get inside, though, and you’ll find they’ve done a decent job of making the place look like a mom ’n’ pop Italian joint in Bayonne, New Jersey, say, or maybe West Palm Beach. They’ve wisely shunned fake grape leaves and red-checked tablecloths in favor of Chianti-color walls, faux-brick and a few old sepia photos of Nonno and Nonna on their wedding day. Bistro 42 is also a frequent music venue.
The menu, which tops out at $15, offers basic Ialian-American family dishes, plus a few not-so-Italian options. You won’t find osso buco here, or bistecca fiorentina, or any fancy stuff, but there’s Momma’s spaghetti with marinara sauce ($10), chicken or eggplant parm or lasagna (all $14), and rib-sticking Italian pot roast ($10 on a sandwich, $15 on a plate). You can also fill up on a Pita Cheeza ($12), a pizza-like concoction built on flatbread.
Nonna might be a little bewildered, too, by such not-so-Italian options as a gyro wrap ($10), “Northern” salmon ($15) or fish and chips ($14), but hey. And there’s always that sausage ($10 on a sandwich, $14 in a marinara bowl).
There’s a full bar, but the wine and beer lists are short and apparently stocked by corporate suppliers; pickins are slim for local craft brews or interesting artisanal Italian vino. I ended up, unexpectedly, with a draught Guinness ($6).
Baskets of garlic bread were built on loaves that might have come from Kroger, but the garlic was plentiful and the loaves warm, and that’s a good thing.
Golf-ball size risotto balls ($9) made an app big enough for sharing. Cheesy risotto cloaked in a crunchy deep-fried Parm-and-panko crust would make a fine bar snack. They came with a spicy orange remoulade that kicked them up a notch. No, two notches.
Vegetable soup ($5) was passable but not particularly inspiring. Green beans, corn, onions, peas and carrots and tomato chunks swam with a few shreds of pot-roasted beef in a light tomato-and-beef soup.
Eggplant Parmesan ($14) was decent, although I can’t rank it with NYC originals like Ferdinano’s in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill. Three eggplant rounds were cloaked in bread crumbs and fried, although any residual crispness gave way to a coating of standard-issue, dried-herb-scented marinara and cheese. They were mounted on a bed of spaghetti and run under a broiler until the edges were charred.
Along with the sausage, Italian pot roast ($15) was the hit of the meal. Tender, boneless meat was sliced thin and falling apart, long-cooked and flavorful. Accompanying mashed potatoes with a pool of decent gravy were fine, as was buttery, slightly al dente broccoli.
Cannoli ($6 each) were decent, crisp but surprisingly hard, requiring some hard work with a fork to break through. Coffee ($2.25) was not espresso, but fresh, clearn standard American.
Our server’s Italian shtick was funny at first, although it wore a little thin with frequent repetition. Still, he did an excellent job of attentively caring for a good-size party. With one Guinness, dinner for two mounted up to $67.71, plus a $14 tip. It’s not cheap eats, but bountiful eats, enough to fill us up and provide plenty to take home.