Step Back in Time at Rossini’s

February 8, 2014 Updated: October 8, 2018

I have 10 minutes to make my way across town from Chelsea to Murray Hill. It’s a commute that maddens me—it takes just as long to take public transportation as to walk. I hop on CitiBike, although I have ill luck on wheels, no matter how big, small, analog, or mechanized. Fortune seems to smile on me today though. When I arrive at my lunch meeting destination, my limbs are all intact. 

My destination is Rossini’s on East 38th and Park, just a few minutes away from Grand Central. I arrive (a little) out of breath, hair (a little) in disarray, and feel (a little) out of place at this Italian restaurant. Maybe because I’m a little bit out of sorts, it’s all the more apparent to me that there, the world seems to have stopped during a gentler, bygone era. 

Enter and you’ll see a bar and an intimate dining room. That’s just the front of the restaurant, which used to be a popular spot to retire after dinner for a brandy and cigar. Go through a hallway past the bar, and there Rossini’s vast multilevel dining room unfolds.

“People walk in and they don’t believe it,” Romano Bernaz, who started Rossini’s back in 1978, told me. 

“They stop over there: ‘This place is so small.’ 
‘Listen, can I help you?’ 
‘No, we’re looking for a restaurant, this is a bar.’ 
‘No, this is the lounge, come in.’
They walk in: ‘Oh my … ‘ It really opens up. … You don’t see many restaurants with that layout.”

The waiters all don tuxedos (it’s not unusual to see them dressed more formally than the diners), and the atmosphere seems straight out of a film set. Paintings of Italian villages and countryside recall the beauty of the old home country.

Although it has an upscale feel there’s also a kind of homeyness to it. The service is unmistakably formal but is very attentive and respectful. I’m never made to feel uncomfortable despite looking like I’ve just pedaled here (which indeed I have).

It seems like a luxury these days, but Rossini’s is more emblematic of a time when meals were unhurried, and conversation was at a premium. There is a good amount of space between tables, enough that you’re not overhearing conversations going on elsewhere. Carpets all over soften the traveling sound, and—I love this detail—most of the chairs have armrests. 

It’s about 180 degrees from too-hip-for-thou spots, where you go hoarse trying to converse over Jay-Z. Some people like to dine as if they’re at a rock or hip-hop concert; others, who don’t, will appreciate Rossini’s for a different kind of entertainment.

Live Music

Rossini’s was named after composer Gioachino Rossini, who penned “The Barber of Seville” and “William Tell.” Ever since the restaurant opened, it has featured live music.

A pianist plays every night, except Saturday, lending a gentle musical touch to dinner. On Saturday evenings, the atmosphere is transformed with a trio of musicians, one pianist, and two singers, who gingerly go around tables to take requests—of which most include light opera and Broadway songs. On one evening I dropped by, they were performing a song from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera.” When they asked for requests, a woman suggested “Night and Day.” It was a romantic crowd.

It’s not unusual for diners to look up from their conversation, pause, and take in the entertainment. 

In short, things move more slowly at Rossini’s. Dinner out is not only about eating and running off to the next thing, but an experience to be enjoyed over a few hours.

The unhurried lunch is good for business engagements, to get to know colleagues, or bring partners for a meeting. The unobtrusive service is a plus.

“We’ve always said it’s a perfect environment for your confidential business meeting, or a great place for a romantic interlude,” said Gerry Bernaz, Romano’s son.

From Trieste to New York

Bernaz was an electrical engineer by trade, but when he arrived in the United States in 1948 from Trieste, Italy, to join his father, he had a difficult time finding a job—American servicemen were back home from the war by then. He went into the restaurant business first as a waiter, and then opened his own restaurant in 1953, in Brooklyn.

It was difficult work. “Somebody told me, ‘You’re never gonna make it.’ Well, I’m not gonna quit,” he recalled.

“I was doing everything, cleaning the floor, making the drinks, be a waiter at night. Then the cook would leave, and I would be in the kitchen till midnight. I’d be working 14 hours a day.” After a couple of years, the restaurant turned around. “Almost overnight … see, the sunshine is out.”

Just last November he celebrated his birthday as well as 60 years in business. He is retired in Florida now, but whenever he ventures north, you can find him at the restaurant.

Sons Raymond, Gerry, and his nephew Josip Cernjul run the show, while daughter Maryann heads the bar. Since Rossini’s opened in 1978, one of the family has always been there to personally attend to diners. 

Many staff members have been working there for years. “Thirty percent of our people who are here have been here longer than 15 years,” said Gerry. “Our bartender Raphael has been with us 33 years. [The chef] has been with us for 25 years. He started off as as a pasta guy then moved to sauté then became our head chef about 19–20 years ago. Most of our people are homegrown.”

A hallway boasts photos of public figures who have dined at Rossini’s—Martin Sheen was a regular for a while; and Robert de Niro dined quite often before he opened his own place, Gerry said. Politicians—former Mayor Rudy Giuliani was a regular presence—as well as notorious figures. I try to ask more. Discreet by profession, Gerry doesn’t say much. “In many ways, a restaurant is like a church. You don’t tell stories out of school,” he said.

The Food at Rossini’s

When he entered the restaurant business, Romano Bernaz was one of the first few to cook in the northern Italian style, not so much with heavy tomato sauces of the south, but with wine and butter, more representative of the north. 

Today, the menu features dishes from all over Italy, from hearty pasta classics (gnocchi Bolognese, fettuccine Alfredo), to meat and fish dishes that rely on either wine reductions or lighter sauces.

Baked clams are famous here, broiled to give the bread crumbs their golden zesty taste and steamed underneath, to a plump juiciness ($12). Mussels are equally juicy and a worthy starter ($16).

A red snapper was prepared marechiara style, in a light wine and tomato sauce (market price).

There are some twists here and there that depart from the classics.

The chicken parmesan is made with a white sauce, with white wine, butter, and a touch of besciamella sauce, and baked with mozzarella cheese ($25).

There are a fair number of veal dishes, including the signature veal scallopini Rossini. It differs from a simpler marsala versions with the addition of mushrooms, prosciutto, and onions ($27).

Entrées are hearty fare. It’s best to be armed with a healthy appetite to tuck into these.

Lunch prix-fixe $29, including an appetizer, entrée, and dessert. 

 

Rossini’s 
108 E. 38th St. (close to Park Avenue)
212-683-0135
rossinisrestaurant.com

Hours
Monday–Friday 11:30 a.m. –11:30 p.m.
Saturday 4:30 p.m.–midnight
Sunday 3 p.m.–10 p.m.

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