Aldo’s Seafood and Pizza Restaurant and Sara without an H
Andiamo (C’mon, let’s go) to Aldo’s Seafood and Pizza Restaurant for this month’s Picky Pick. There are many good restaurants on the island, some even include a few Italian dishes on their menus or serve pizza, but there is only one full menu Italian restaurant and that is Aldo’s.
I’ve been there for dinner for two, and I’ve gone on nights when they have an oldies duo serving up songs to dance to, but I especially love to go there when a whole gang of us wants to get together for the evening. So when Marty Schulman rang up my husband Ron to invite us to a birthday party for his wife Ila at Aldo’s, I said, “Andiamo!”
Marty was even kind enough to include our 16 year-old great niece Sara, who was visiting us from the California high desert in Riverside County. I asked her afterward to write up her thoughts on the evening and on Aldo’s and was surprised to get a very lovely description of the night, instead of the expected sharp rants about a herd of old folks trying to have a celebration. Sara is known for her hilarious point of view on life, but that night at Aldo’s hit her sweet spot.
“I thought I was going to have a bad time, but I had a good time,” she announced the morning after, though only one other person there was under the age of 55 and even she was slightly over 30.
But, then, why should I have been surprised? We’d been seated outdoors under Aldo’s roof canopy where the many members of the Leone family, old and young, with children and babies, often gather for their own dinners, relaxing together after a busy day of work. At the head of our cobbled together long table, was Leo Leone, owner Anna Papa’s brother, imparting a Leone ambiance to our gathering.
Everybody knows your name...
Aldo’s Restaurant has been an island favorite since the Leones’ parents Aldo and Maria started out with a small pizzeria and sub shop here more than 32 years ago. Daughter Anna and her husband Steve now own the restaurant and bakery, and both of their children, Christina and Steve work here summers. Their embrace of the whole Leone family as important, even necessary to their daily lives, makes Aldo’s a comfortable place for the rest of us to bring family as well as friends together for a relaxed celebration or just a night out together. On any given night, you can see islanders sitting at tables in the outside area, or when the weather turns chilly or rainy, filling up the indoor seating.
Whenever we have a large crowd getting together at a restaurant, Aldo’s is our first choice. The food is good, the prices are reasonable and we can go as we are and laugh out loud without disturbing anyone else, and we do do a lot of laughing.
I am often anxious around people in general, whether they are young or old. So when I found out that there was a get-together, I was tempted to tell Judy that I would stay at home out of fear of imposition. But I decided that since I am on vacation, I would sit back and enjoy whatever was planned, and immerse myself into the Block Island culture.
I went around the table, smiling and nodding while being introduced. I felt that I was in the way, mostly because I was not a friend of the host, nor was I a friend of any of the other fifteen guests. When I sat down, I tried to keep to myself, something that is near impossible with Judy sitting close to you. When she noticed a lull in conversation on our side of the table, she would bring up an interesting fact about me in an attempt to keep the conversation going. It isn’t often that I feel very comfortable around others, but with Judy’s help, I was able to loosen up in what felt like only a few minutes. I could feel my body language changing as I faced everyone, smiling and chatting with the wonderful women next to me. I loved hearing their stories, whether they were about earlier parts of their lives or about their current experiences on the island.
I was also concerned at first about the food. Back home I don’t have access to many Italian restaurants. The few that are in my city are, for the most part, terrible. As I’m sure you’ve heard, if you haven’t had the opportunity to try it yourself, pizza on the west coast is, for lack of a better term, awful — cardboard crust, dry cheese, flavorless sauce. I was pleasantly surprised with the food at Aldo’s.
I started off with a salad, which I shared with the two women next to me. It was off the “Specials” menu: crisp lettuce topped with goat cheese and apple slices, with a tasty dressing. Then it came time to order my own meal. After quite a bit of thought, I decided that the safest bet was the fettuccini Alfredo. When it arrived, it looked like fettuccini Alfredo should. The first thing I noticed about this particular dish was how large it was. It could have easily fed two people. When I took a bite, I was shocked at the taste. It was delicious. The sauce was a wonderful consistency. It was not soupy, but it also was not overly thick. It was just right for this dish.
It was obvious to me that the chefs at Aldo’s have put a lot of time and effort into perfecting their dishes, they seemed invested in the happiness of each and every customer.
At the end of the night, I was able to turn to Ron and Judy and say, completely honestly, that I had a wonderful time. I loved getting to know those who sat with us, and getting a feel for what life is like on the island with the locals. There is a wonderful community underneath this tourist veneer, and it’s quite lovely. I am thankful that I got to witness it, and even say that I took a small part in it, even if only for an hour or two. I sincerely hope that everyone who attended the dinner enjoyed it the way that I did, and that this group has many, many more reasons to celebrate in the future.
It’s obvious, even to an outsider like myself, that these get-togethers are treasured evenings. All in all, I had an awesome time celebrating with such a great group of people, and I look forward to my next trip to Block Island, when I might just be lucky enough to see everyone again.
We ordered off the menu, and Ron and I shared a house salad to start, described as for two, but really for three. We tried to share it with our Sara, but she already had some of Carol’s. Carol is a close friend and employee of Ila’s and she was sitting directly across from me between my Sara and the 30-something Sarah, who also works for Ila and is the niece of our friends Norman and Shelley. Carol quickly dubbed our niece “Sara without an H” and Shelley’s “Sarah with an H.”
Soon pepperoni bread with a mouth-watering tomato sauce was making the rounds at both ends of the table. I remember summers when gluten was considered a staple of life and we used to run down to the restaurant to bring home one of those breads to eat for lunch or at evening cocktails with friends. I do not have celiac disease, and I am proud to say, neither am I gluten sensitive, so I dug into those slices with glee. Mangia!
I ordered a dish I only eat at Italian restaurants, veal picata, lightly sautéed in wine, lemon juice, capers and of course, garlic. Ron ordered eggplant parmesan as he usually does here. But he is not that dish’s only fan. Birthday girl Ila told me she ordered it and she eats it every day for lunch as well. “At the end of the season,” she said, “I buy a dozen and freeze them.”
I was reminded that genes play an important role in preferences when Sara ordered that fettucine alfredo, a dish I had to learn to make when my son Kevin was growing up, as it was one of his favorites. Genes? Or, could it be neither of them drink milk and need to get their calcium other ways? Perhaps it is just delicious.
My friend J whom I often write about was at the other end of the table so I couldn’t observe what she ordered. All I can tell you is she went home with a smile on her face just like the rest of us.
The absolute best moment of the evening, though, was the arrival of the chocolate cake ablaze with candles, which we were told the Leone family bakes for their own birthday celebrations. The frosting was thick and very chocolatey, oooh yes. The texture of the crumb was moist but light, perfect. Usually I eat the frosting and leave the cake, as I was raised in a Viennese household where anything baked had a light crumb, a European style that I have subsequently learned originated with Danish bakers, but at Ila’s party, I ate the whole thing.
All were pleased with the food and the service. Even Ron was happy (but his stock as el exigente has dropped since that night he declared my burnt and crusted steak the best he ever ate.)
We all saluted Marty for hosting us at this wonderful gathering, and Aldo’s Restaurant and Anna & Steve Pappa, for making it special. And, now I know why the adjective “sweet” is attached to the age sixteen. They are, and most especially, our Sara without an H.
From the September 2014 Block Island Summer Times