By Katie Calautti
When I moved to Manhattan 3 years ago – a naive, wide-eyed Upstate New York transplant – I couldn’t imagine the city being anything but a myriad of glitzy, overwhelming skyscrapers, storefronts, restaurants and savvy natives.
The first night in my brand new apartment, I succumbed to my hunger pangs and bravely ventured all of 5 feet – next door – to an unpretentious-looking Italian restaurant called Il Vagabondo. Little did I know that – in one dinner session – I had inducted myself into the neighborhood’s warm, rich history.
Being of Italian heritage guarantees a few things: I have many outspoken, overprotective relatives; I have been raised to value family, above all; and I am never, ever impressed by Italian restaurants. As far as I’m concerned, every spot on Mulberry Street is slinging overpriced Ragu.
Such is not the case with Il Vagabondo.
My first meal – still my favorite dish – was the Gnocchi. It has become my obsession. I crave it day and night. It’s nearly impossible to find a light, fresh version of the oft-gooey and overdone potato pasta. Il Vagabondo’s take is pitch-perfect, right down to the sauce (which comes in both meat and tomato versions.)
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Steeped in history, the restaurant began as a clubhouse in the early 1900′s, owned by current co-proprietor Ernie Vogliano’s uncle. Vogliano’s grandfather built the centerpiece of the space – an indoor bocce court, which remains to this day (and is open to anyone dining at the restaurant). Around 1933, after prohibition, the clubhouse was made into a bar and grill until 1965, when Vogliano and two other partners opened Il Vagabondo. Since then, the space has expanded from the original bar and bocce area to two additional rooms in adjoining buildings.
The neighborhood prior to, and at the time of, Il Vagabondo’s inception was predominantly Italian – comprised of a community of families originating from the Parma section of Italy. Residents flocked to the restaurant for the Northern Italian fare and bocce, and – though the area’s ethnic background has changed since then – the place still remains a favorite for folks throughout the city. Asked how he has maintains a successful venue in the cutthroat NYC restaurant industry, Vogliano states that, “We give value. It’s true and simple. You have to give people good food, a reasonable price, and try to give good service.” These uncomplicated, steadfast rules have remained the backbone of the restaurant’s success.
The current décor of the space is a nod to its roots – a large, weathered-looking photograph of locals and employees taken in 1968 flanks one end of the bocce court, as well as the front of the menus. In the far-most dining room, another wall is covered by a circa-early 1970′s photo of the restaurant employees gleefully toasting glasses of wine toward the camera, as if to bless the meals of all who enter the room.
Photograph taken at the back of the indoor bocce court in 1968 that adorns the menus and the restaurant itself.
Since its inauguration, sports, TV, movie and radio personalities have flocked to Il Vagabondo. The largest dining room is blanketed with pictures of its famous clientele – including Emeril Lagasse (who still stops in for dinner when he’s in town), Jake LaMotta (who dines there weekly), Rudy Giuliani, various members of the New York Rangers, Wayne Gretzky (whose signed stick hangs below his photo), Dom Deluise, Mariel Hemingway, Brooke Shields (who used to live up the street), Andre Agassi, and countless others.
Stopping next to a photo of Bill Cosby, Vogliano recounted that 15 or 20 years ago, Polaroid asked Cosby to pose for one of their ads, and he agreed – under two conditions: that he be free to wear whatever he wished, and that the photo be sent to Il Vagabondo for placement on the wall. Proving to be a vocal advocate for the restaurant, Cosby dons a red uniform – complete with an Il Vagabondo patch – in the picture.
And it’s easy to see why Il Vagabondo inspires such loyalty from its guests. Many of the employees have been with the restaurant for years, and dispense neighborhood stories and traditional Italian wisdom as freely as they pour wine and serve pasta. One taste of the Gnocchi (made fresh in-house daily), Penne Ala Vodka, Chicken Milanese, Veal Scallopine or customer favorite, Osso Bucco, and you’ll be hooked.
Even if you’re not – ehem – lucky enough to be an Italian, at Il Vagabondo, you’ll find yourself inadvertently welcomed into the family – as during any traditional Italian meal or gathering.
Il Vagabondo is located at 351 East 62nd Street (between 1st and 2nd Avenues). To learn more, visit their website at www.ilvagabondo.com.