21-02 30th Ave., Astoria; (718) 545-5550
Lunch, Mon.-Fri., noon-4 p.m.;
Dinner, Sun.-Mon., 5-10 p.m.; Tue.-Thur., 5-11 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5 p.m.-12 a.m.
VIBE: Warm nabe spot
OCCASION: Casual date, neighborhood bites, family or group dinner
DON’T-MISS DISH: Three-meat lasagna, lamb shank, baby Jesus cake
PRICES: Appetizers, $8; entrees, $14; desserts, $5.50
Have you ever had wine by the shot? I hadn’t either, until a few weeks ago.
I don’t mean shot, as in a one-ounce shot of whiskey. I mean a port glass of Primitivo – a spicy, medium-bodied red from Puglia – for $2.50. This is a wine you could drink all through dinner.
But why bother? If you can drink wine by the shot, you can try many more wines and pair them more closely with each course you order. And still walk out of the restaurant without weaving.
Where did I run across this clever idea? At the corner of 30th Avenue & 21st Street in Astoria, Queens – a little place called Vesta. Queens may sound like a long ways away, but this trattoria is closer from midtown than most of downtown. Here’s how I think of it – the lamb shank I had the other night is just over the 59th Street bridge.
Giuseppe Falco is the co-owner of Vesta and the host. In the kitchen is Michelle Vido. Between them, they’ve worked at Monkey Bar, Sapa, The River Cafe, Little Giant, Trattoria Del Arte and Bond 45 – big-deal Manhattan restaurants. And they’re serving big-deal food on 30th Avenue, right across from the 99 cent store. The menu isn’t complicated: three types of pizza, lasagna, linguine, gnocchi, calamari, chicken, steak, some simple sides and a few nightly specials. With only a couple of exceptions, these are all wonderful.
It’s not so much that Vido reinvents these dishes. She doesn’t
overdesign them, she doesn’t overpresent them, she’s not trying to be a
culinary architect, and she doesn’t crowd them with unwanted
ingredients. In fact, there’s no fashion to this food whatsoever – only
What you’re left with after a meal at Vesta is a series of vivid
impressions. Some are impressions of taste – the preserved lemons in
the charred green beans, bits of toasted hazelnut in the cous cous,
sweet shreds of pork in the three-meat lasagna, the cracker-like crust
of the pizza, the cipollini onions that pop up and here there on the
But some impressions are more complicated. You order the braised lamb shank. Out comes something fit for Fred Flintstone.
Where is the electric knife, you wonder? But with one touch of the
fork, the shank comes undone. It falls into pieces, as if insisting you
have a little cous cous with each bite or a little caramelized onion.
And of course, you eat the perfectly-crumbed exterior pieces first.
Vesta’s a pretty plain place – as warm as it is simple. The diner
feels at home here and the food feels at home here. The portions are
huge and very well-priced. Even if the portions were tiny, they’d still
be worth coming to Queens for.
In every dish there’s a dash of sophistication – the prune reduction
under the roast salmon, the way Vido sears the gnocchi, the spiced
sausage on the pizza, the clementine and Grand Marnier sauce on the panna cotta.
And now a few words about the baby Jesus cake – La Torta del Piccolo
Bambino Jesu Christo. It looks so humble, so unassuming – a square mass
of cafeteria cake without frosting, only dense with dates and drenched
in a caramel sauce. As for how it tastes, I leave that one up to you.
Vesta is a genuine step forward for neighborhood cooking – the idea that every neighborhood deserves a really good restaurant.