Just inside Junior's Long Island Pizza awaits a larger-than-life mural portrait of the restaurant's namesake, "Junior" Castellaneta, who bears a welcoming smile and a pizza topped with tomatoes as big as your hand.
An Italian immigrant who arrived at Ellis Island in 1909, Castellaneta went on to cook his way across the New York Italian restaurant landscape from Little Italy to Long Island. He also happens to be the great-uncle of John Drury, who owns the restaurant with partner Nondas Kalfas. And that explains why Drury and Kalfas -- who, as owners of nearby Spartacus, built their reputation on Greek cuisine -- decided to open an Italian restaurant.
Not just any Italian restaurant, mind you. Soon after you've taken in Castellaneta's portrait, you'll notice the wall-to-wall large screen TVs in the dining room, the bar bristling with 24 draft-beer taps, and the video and arcade games for kids of all ages. Junior's is, in fact, a family-friendly Italian restaurant and a sports pub. The restaurant, which opened in June, is a worthy destination even if you're not a sports fan.
Granted, the sports pub setting may not remind you of Little Italy. But the pizzas and pasta dishes, many of which are made from recipes handed down through the Castellaneta family, will.
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One of those recipes, for Junior's house-made meatballs, calls for ground beef and pork, garlic and Parmesan -- and, evidently, some secret ingredient that makes them as light in texture as they are packed with flavor. Slightly bigger than golf balls, they're served over al dente spaghetti tossed with Momma's marinara (a rustic, lightly sweet version), or on a substantial meatball Parmesan sandwich.
Uncle Vito's lasagna is made from another family recipe. A savory slab of layered pasta, ground beef, sweet Italian sausage, cheese and tomato sauce, it's served in such a gargantuan portion that you probably won't be able to finish it.
Pizzas are offered with more than two dozen topping options, from anchovies and garlic to bacon and sun-dried tomatoes. Among the selection of house specialty pies, some are named for Long Island landmarks: the Manhasset Meat, for instance, or the Bethpage BBQ Chicken. Or the Wantagh White, which lives up to its promise of "serious cheese" with a generous payload of mozzarella, ricotta and Parmesan. The crust -- yeast-fragrant and thin, but not too thin -- lives up to New York pizza tradition for the most part, though it isn't always as crisp as it should be.
In a nod to armchair quarterback appetites, the menu also offers an assortment of pub fare -- nachos, wings, burgers and cheese fries, to name a few. Sweet potato fries are a winning offbeat option. So are Angus sliders, miniature burgers topped simply with molten cheddar.
But my nomination for Most Valuable Player on the menu goes to an entree listed as "our famous chicken and pasta." Featuring half a dozen chicken wings, marinated in Italian seasonings and roasted to a crisp-skinned turned and piled atop a small mountain of spaghetti tossed in olive oil, garlic and Parmesan, the dish combines the best of both worlds, Italian and pub fare.
In just five months -- and despite its location in a sprawling shopping center -- Junior's Long Island Pizza is beginning to take on the comfortable feel of a neighborhood eatery that has been around for decades.