Friday, August 20, 2010

Little Venice

Name: Little Venice
Location: 111 Chenango St., Binghamton, NY 13901
Phone: (607) 724-2513
Cuisine: Italian
Price: Depends what you get. Could be $15 per person or well more than that depending on what you get.

Little Venice is one of Binghamton's oldest restaurants, and lays claim to being the longest-running Italian restaurant in the Triple Cities. They got their humble beginnings back in 1946 on Court St., but eventually migrated their way over to Chenango St., just north of Binghamton's bus terminal. I first learned of the existence of Little Venice from Megan's grandfather, who worked on the railroad line connecting Binghamton to points downstate, and enjoyed many meals at Little Venice a number of years ago.

This is a restaurant famous for many things, not least of which is its tomato sauce. There is a long-standing rumor that the internet has helped to perpetuate regarding the inclusion of applesauce as an ingredient in the sauce, giving it its distinctly sweet flavor. According to the placemats adorning each table setting at the restaurant, such rumors are pure fabrication. No matter what the ingredients are, there's no denying that the sauce is unique among the area's Italian offerings, and very tasty for that matter.

The layout of Little Venice is rather unique in the sense that it really is more like two restaurants instead of one. In the front of the restaurant is a fantastic-looking bar (new as of their most recent remodeling) and a number of tables on either side of it. Walk down the long corridor back towards the kitchen and you will find the main dining room, a spacious area with tons of tables in the middle and booths lining the walls. No matter how busy it is, it's not hard to get a table at Little Venice even if you don't have reservations, because the place is just plain HUGE. It should be noted: there are entrances in both the front and the back of the restaurant corresponding to each dining area.

I arrived around 7:15 tonight along with two friends and after a short wait, we got a booth in the main room. I felt the booth was a bit cramped for the three of us and probably would have been better suited to a party of two, but it was manageable, and after a couple minutes of adjusting to the close quarters, I was fine with it. The restaurant is noted for its collection of original artwork. There are more than 100 paintings decorating the walls of the restaurant: some portraits, some Hudson River School nature scenes, and yet others of Binghamton itself in a bygone era. On past visits, I felt the restaurant's lighting was a little too dark and hence did a poor job of highlighting the artwork. This time, my first visit since the remodeling was finished, the dining room was much brighter, which made a world of difference in a positive way for its ambiance. The fact that there was a bustling Friday night crowd and that the tables are relatively close together gave Little Venice an Old-World feel on this occasion.

We were fairly promptly presented with bread and drinks, and ordered the fried calamari appetizer. The bread was good, though fairly standard for the area. One of my friends thought it would be a nice touch to have dipping oil as an option to go with the bread as is the custom at some other local places, and I would tend to agree. But it was fine as it was. The calamari, while not bad, was a little forgettable. Served with the house marinara sauce, I'm not sure I would order the calamari again, but it did help calm my initial hunger pangs.

For my entree I elected to go with Little Venice's legendary Manicotti with one sausage and one meatlog, covered in the famous applesauce-free red tomato sauce. Yes, I just said "meatlog," by the way, given that Little Venice's meatballs are not ball-shaped, but take the form of logs instead. With any pasta dish comes the choice of soup or salad, and I elected to go with the soup (Manhattan Clam Chowder was the soup of the day today, a personal favorite of mine). Unfortunately, I quickly learned that they had just run out of the soup due to an abnormally large Friday night crowd (it was stuffed to the gills in there like I'd never seen it) and so I opted for the house salad with Italian dressing.

The salad was good and included some different ingredients than the usual, namely green peppers (pickled, perhaps?). After enjoying the salad, I was ready for the main course, but there was about a half-hour wait between the consumption of salad and the arrival of our entrees. Given that there was a party of 24 seating directly adjacent to us, I was more than willing to forgive the somewhat slower-than-usual service. In fact, service has always been fairly prompt on my prior visits, so the long wait was a bit of an outlier.

We finally received our meals and it was time to dig in. My manicotti came on its own plate and the meatlog and sausage came together, covered in the sweet red sauce. The manicotti at Little Venice is different from any I've had anywhere else. Normally I think of manicotti as being a long, somewhat thick, tubular pasta, but Little Venice's are more like pasta crepes, filled with delicious ricotta cheese, covered with the red sauce, and sprinkled with Parmesan cheese on top. A minor complaint I had with the dish was that it was a little burned/overdone in a couple of spots on the edges, but by and large, this was the best manicotti I've ever had, hands down. The meatlog was also extremely tasty, and better this time than previous times I've had one. The sausage, on the other hand, was a little on the lukewarm side and generally not up to par with the rest of my entree. On the whole, I was definitely more than satisfied with everything I had.

Another slightly extended wait ensued before we were approached regarding dessert. Since my fellow diners were up for partaking in some dessert, I followed suit, and went with the Chocolate Truffle Cake, which was basically like a delicious, rich brownie served with a side of vanilla gelato. Excellent stuff, and one of the highlights of the meal for sure.

Little Venice might just be one of my favorite restaurants in the Binghamton area, especially since their remodeling effort has made for a much less stodgy ambiance. On this particular visit, there were some minor flaws in both the food and the service, but the manicotti and the cake were both top-notch dishes that rivaled the best Italian food you can get in this area or any other. It may not be perfect, but with its rich decor and superb cuisine, I see no reason why Little Venice won't be serving up its classic red sauce to many future generations of Binghamtonians.

Grade: B+

Little Venice Restaurant on Urbanspoon

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