The stroll south down 104th Street from Roosevelt Avenue to the Park Side Restaurant — an Italian-American old-timer in the heart of Corona that I longed to revisit — is a walk backwards in time. It traverses a former Italian neighborhood dating to just after World War II, of which only a few vestiges remain.
One establishment you’ll pass is Leo’s Latticini, which started out selling fresh ricotta and mozzarella when this neighborhood was still dappled with farms, and ended up as a multi-store complex housing a pastry shop, Italian grocery, and sandwich counter. Another, if you happen to be coming from the other direction, is the Lemon Ice King of Corona, one of the city’s most irreplaceable destinations for frozen desserts.
Eventually, you’ll arrive at Park Side, a sprawling restaurant with a distinctive green awning on the northern edge of triangular-shaped William F. Moore Park, famous for its bocce courts. There, a decade ago, old Sicilian men competed with much younger Latinos under strings of tiny colored lights, with spectators drifting over from the restaurant as darkness deepened. Now the players have vanished.
Park Side is one of only two dozen or so historic Italian-American restaurants still open in Brooklyn and Queens. It is modern by the group’s standards, founded around 1980 in its present form by Anthony Federici, who famously kept racing pigeons on the roof, and also serves as its chef. Previously, it was known as the Corona Supper Club, a much smaller cafe opened in 1960.
The corner entrance opens into a bar, and then a glitzy dining room, decorated with copies of ancient Roman statuary that bely the origin of most of the menu in Sicily and southern Italy. A bowl of fresh peaches invites patrons to take one or two home with them — such is the hospitality of Park Side, where a Christmas tree is kept lit year round.
My last meal there six years before had been mediocre. It had certainly not been up to the standards of Michael’s in Marine Park or Frost in Williamsburg, two other red-sauced Italian-American establishments, both located in Brooklyn. But, on this occasion, the food was much better, I noted while sitting in the paved side yard with three friends, penned in by palm trees and flowers. As the sun set, the tables surrounding us filled with extended families, who seemed well-acquainted with the menu and staff.
Naturally, we went for the most Italian-American dishes, eschewing more modern ingredients like arugula, balsamic vinegar, and pesto. The eggplant rollatini ($9.95) was spectacular, not so much rolled as layered, with alternating strata of eggplant and mozzarella smothered in a lively marinara. Another don’t miss appetizer are the baked clams ($11.95), delicate littlenecks slathered with olive oil and heaped with breadcrumbs and garlic. The dish was so good that, once the bivalves were dispatched, the bread basket came into play as every drop of the intensely flavored juices were sopped up.
The bread basket merits special mention on its own. While this classic restaurant freebie has declined over the last few years or been eliminated entirely, here the basket bristles with multiple varieties of fresh bread. One is the fabled lard bread, speckled with the minced fatty trimmings of prosciutto, creating little salty flavor bombs in every bite. There’s also an herb-topped focaccia, sesame-seeded semolina bread, and olive rolls. To our surprise, a plate of salami, cheese, and pickled pepper bruschetta also came along with it. Really, at Park Side you wouldn’t need any appetizers at all because the bread basket and antipasti plate are so generous.
However, we also ordered a seafood salad, which was the least appealing of the three apps. Though piled high with squid, shrimp, octopus, and oil-cured olives, it also included tidbits of pressed seafood paste that diminished the dish. We calculated rightly that the pastas would come in humongous portions, and thus could enjoy a single serving as a second course shared among four. The penne puttanesca ($19.95) was even more aggressive than others you might have tried, with plenty of black olives and lots of anchovies delivering a salty and fishy kick. The tomato sauce that underpinned it was thicker than usual, making it a very rich course.
We’d seen secondi, the larger entrees, sailing by on the extended arms of servers and knew that these were as voluminous as the pastas and even more so. Once again, we went for some classics: a pork chop ($29.95) we knew would be double thick, smothered in pickled cherry peppers and big enough to be sliced like a roast. The portion was so beautiful we paused to admire it before digging in. We also went for the chicken parm ($24.95), a dish the restaurant has become identified with, much more so than veal parm or veal milanesa. Needless to say, when it arrived we couldn’t see the chicken, only sauce and cheese. But cutting into it, the crumbly crust crackled, and tasty juices oozed from the plump chicken cutlet.
We were so full at this point (and the bread basket was now empty), that we couldn’t think about the desserts displayed inside the restaurant, luscious as they looked. Besides, we’d intended to get ices elsewhere in the neighborhood for the meal’s conclusion. Washed down with a mixed drink or glass of wine apiece, and including the tax and tip, our meal came to around $220, which we reckoned a bargain.
But the meal wasn’t over. As we prepared to leave, a complimentary plate of biscotti appeared. We gratefully munched the cookies as we marched across the park, sadly noting the lack of bocce players and heading for the Lemon Ice King of Corona’s beckoning sign, where lemon and watermelon are two highly recommended flavors.