by Richard Rosenblatt
It’s Belmont Stakes week, with a dizzying array of events scheduled at grand ol’ Belmont Park, home of the Belmont Stakes, the final leg of the Triple Crown series.
Even though there won’t be a Triple Crown on the line, there’s a classic to be won over a grueling 1 ½-mile tour around the track known as “Big Sandy.” The buildup to the Belmont features seven other Grade 1 stakes on Saturday’s card, and a total of 18 stakes schedule from Thursday-Saturday, an event now known as the Belmont Stakes Racing Festival.
After a day at the races, though, there’s always time for a night of can’t-miss dining, especially at a handful of long-time favorites of folks in and out of the horse-racing business (a few others are included). You may enjoy a few drinks and some grub at the track, but dinner’s dinner. You’re either hangry from a bad beat or you’re just plan hungry after collecting so much dough that you can’t wait to spend it. And close to the track, be it Floral Park, New Hyde Park, Garden City, or Elmont, there’s plenty of terrific dining options.
I know this. We (my wife and two children) lived in Floral Park (our front windows faced the backstretch) for more than 25 years. So, I’ll admit to a bit of bias, but I’d like to think I have good taste after frequenting the majority of cafes, dives, inns, joints, saloons, and restaurants within a few-mile radius.
That said, off we go to the spots on my to-dine list now that I’m back in New York for another Belmont Stakes. And if you pay attention, you just might run into any number of trainers, such as Shug McGaughey, Jimmy Jerkens, and Barclay Tagg at some of these establishments.
First off, if you begin to feel an Italian flavor from the start, it can’t be helped. That’s the way it is.
Villa d’Este (186 Jericho Turnpike, Floral Park): Our go-to Italian restaurant. Win or lose at the track, step into old-world Northern Italy and relax in perhaps the most comfy chairs in any restaurant, anywhere. The waiters know their menu, it’s extensive and the portions generous. There’s a large dining room, and a smaller one with a bar, and some lovely wines to choose from. If you’re not a winey, just go with the house red or white, and you’ll be fine. Complimentary bruschetta starts off the night. Baked clams, mussels or fried calamari are tops among my appetizers. Tasty, prepared perfectly, not rubbery. The salads — I prefer the Caesar — are reasonably priced if you go with the half order. Soup? A few choices, but for you, I’d go with Straciatelle (Italian egg drop soup).
Chicken, veal, fish. You can’t go wrong here. Chicken parm, prepared with homemade marinara sauce, is the way to go – a ton of food on the plate, including your choice of pasta. I’m craving this dish right now, and it’s very early in the morning. Other stellar presentations include veal francese, saltimbocca, sole francese, and you can ask for pescatore – shrimp, calamari, mussels mixed with pasta and red sauce, or fra diavolo.
Need more? Try tartufo for dessert, or tiramisu.
The cost could be a bit pricey (about $60-70 per person with one drink), but well worth it. There a prix fixe menu at $31.95.
Poppy’s Place (12 Verbena Avenue, Floral Park): Like to eat at the bar? This is the place. From late afternoon until about 9 p.m., race-trackers and locals wrap up work, trudge over to the bar and chat about stocks, watch Jeopardy, catch up on race results, and, of course, gossip about the latest shenanigans going on in town.
Bar seats are at a premium, so show up early. Also, there’s a cozy dining room in the back, and the food is close to fantastic. Poppy’s has been around for a long time, and the latest owners worked there for years before stepping up to operate the place. Off the top, when there’s tomato bisque to be had, the best bowl is here. Rich, tangy, creamy. Then there’s the gorgonzola bread, gently fried calamari, and the slam dunk Sicilian meatballs (ricotta, beef, pork, veal) for starters.
Howard salad is a favorite — mixed greens, almonds, dried cranberries, mandarin oranges and mandarin dressing.
Pastas abound: fusilli puttenesca, linguine chicken broccoli sun-dried tomato; penne alla Norma. Again, chicken, veal and fish dishes, and a classic New York strip, make it tough to choose. Like betting, but you’ll usually come out a winner whatever you order.
($45-$55 per person with one drink, but if you eat at the bar, watch your bar bill.
King Umberto (1343 Hempstead Turnpike, Elmont): The first choice of nearly everyone that comes to town for the Belmont. The crème de la crème of Italian restaurants opened in 1976, and has created the best pizza (let the debate begin) you’ll likely ever taste. Not kidding. Try a slice or two, or a pie or two. Then there’s dinner: The spacious dining rooms are like a second home to many, and the staff treats you that way – even first-time visitors. Make a reservation. Walk in and the bar is packed after the races. You’ll have so many choices it can make you a little crazy, but start with a glass of wine or a Manhattan, or a martini, and then dig into the menu. Name a veal dish (parm, piccata, marsala, sorrentina, saltimbocca, rollatini, francese), it’s here. Same with chicken (I love the scarpariello). Fish? The seafood platter has it all. Daily specials abound: burrata, melon and prosciutto; pan-seared pork chops, and porterhouse steak to name a few.
Wine by the glass is about $9.50, and if you want to splurge – perhaps you’ve hit the trifecta, or you’re a winning owner — then why not go for the Harlan Estate (Napa Valley, 2003, 2007, 2008) at $2,000 a bottle? Less ambitious? There’s always Dom Perignon at $300 a bottle.
If you have room for dessert (and there’s plenty of choices), you’ll be lucky. Cannolis for everyone!
Save you dough for this place. It’s pricey.
Eddie’s Pizza (2048 Hillside Avenue, New Hyde Park): Speaking of dives … were we doing that? No, but now we are and this is by far my favorite. Open since the 1930s, and looking like it, this inconspicuous spot has the best bar pie I’ve ever tasted. A 10-inch plain pie is $7.50. Put some stuff on it, pepperoni, sausage? Add a buck or two. A large pie is about $15. Eat at the bar. Listen to the banter. Less about horses and more about life’s trials and tribulations. A scene or two from the show “Entourage” was filmed there. The best part is a real live juke box. Think of a song from the 1950s or 1960s and it’ll be on there (if it’s working). My choice is “Norman,’’ by Sue Thompson.
In addition to bar pies (there’s an Eddie’s Pizza truck as well), the chicken wings are absolutely outstanding. Your choice of dressing. And not super spicy. Try the chopped salad. It’s HUGE! Many of your favorite classic southern Italian dishes also are available.
Let the good times roll.
Trinity (190 Jericho Turnpike, Floral Park): Your Irish pub fix is here, and what a pub it is. Here’s where you’ll run into so many amateur athletes (and drinkers) and so many more horsemen from every facet of the business. Hotwalkers, grooms, exercise riders, assistant trainers, trainers, and owners. It’s a gambler’s delight, too, with SAMs available for evening wagering after a day at Belmont. The crowd is lively, which it should be. There’s the occasional live music, and then there’s the menu … wait, first there’s those addicting chicken tenders, with a variety of dips. They’re so delicious, I stopped by one late morning, picked up two orders, and then headed out to Colorado. They lasted into Queens – and not due to traffic. Great burgers as well and, of course, all theexpected Irish delights: fish and chips, shepherd’s pie, cod, chicken pot pie and gallons of Guinness. Crab cakes are decent for New York, and the goat cheese salad is a favorite.Yes, pasta is available, but this place is about chilling out with a few drinks and some excellent pub grub and a whole lotta braggin’ rights bravado. Main courses are in the $20-$25 range – a great bang for the buck. Cheers!
Worth a shot:
Park Place (Stewart Manor): Full menu, fun bar scene with oysters available at times. When that time arrives. I’m there. Reasonable prices just a few miles from the track.
Waterzooi (Garden City): If you’re staying in this burg, here’s one of the hotspots for all ages, particularly the younger set. The Belgian restaurant features mussels served in just about any style you’d like (creamy lobster sauce and scallions; spicy buffalo styled crumbled, bleu cheese, celery and carrots; chipotle barbeque, roasted corn and crispy crawfish tails; etc.). If I remember correctly, the truffle fries are stupendous. Really expensive.
The Harrison (Floral Park): A new addition to the area, this bistro/tavern restaurant opened a year ago, replacing the iconic Koenig’s, which closed nearly three years ago after a 71-year run. The place features a lively bar scene, and a menu that includes wood-fired steaks (up to $42), a raw bar and fried and rotisserie chicken. A meal can run anywhere from $20-$100 per person.
Over the years while working at The Associated Press, Rich Rosenblatt became a familiar name to legions of the horse racing fans and industry insiders with his award-winning articles on horse racing and his stories from the backstretch.
In addition to being an astute observer of sports, Rosenblatt is the co-author of The All-American Chili Cookbook. His work has been seen in just about every publication in the world, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and Time Magazine.