Order this... Eating family-style at Aldo’s
If you already know Aldo’s and are one of the thousands of people who have either grown up going to the Italian restaurant or have discovered it yourself, this review is not for you. You are already a convert to the delicious homemade Italian food offered by a staff and owner who will call you family after just one visit. If however, you are like me and have never eaten at Aldo’s, then I hope this review will entice you to give it a try.
Eating at Aldo’s is like going to visit your Italian friend’s family and having them make you amazing homemade pasta and pizza with tomato sauce that has been simmering on the stove for hours and you can tell it’s all made with care and love. The family sits down with you and everyone talks over each other and one person starts a story that the other finishes, and you feel completely at home amidst them. The love part isn’t just in the food; it’s palpable in the room where I sat with Ana, Big Stevie, Christina and Little Stevie Papa.
Big Stevie’s father-in-law made him a pizza man, but he didn’t really start working on the island until the downtown sewer installation allowed for a small spot inside a building on Weldon’s Way to open up. This spot became Aldo’s pizza parlor and sub shop and it had room for exactly four stools and two tables. Now Aldo’s seats roughly 120 and the whole family works there — Big and Little Stevie in the kitchen, Christina on the bar. She, along with her mom, Ana, run the front of the house. Even as I talked with them, Ana and Christina were giving me their rapt attention while at the same time making sure other customers in the restaurant were being taken care of. They were like air traffic controllers, answering a question, helping a customer open a door, asking another how her kids are doing, making sure another gets a take-out container, and ordering me more and more food to try. All four gave the same answers to many of my questions, but I was struck by their replies to what was their favorite thing about Aldo’s and Block Island — they responded that it’s the people, the same people who come year after year, and that their customers become part of their family. Big and Little Steve can tell who many of their clients are just from reading their food order in the kitchen, customers threw Christina a baby shower, and both island guests and the Papas look forward to seeing one other during the week or two they visit the island.
And it’s not just the customers who become part of the Papa family. The employees are also embraced in this circle and many keep in touch years after they’ve moved on from working at the restaurant.
To interview the chef is to interview the family, so here are their responses to my questions. Many of the answers were the same though I asked them independently of each other—this really is a family that is close in work, play and food preferences!
Q: What made you want to be a chef on Block Island?
Big S: I worked at a lot of different places before working on the island, but worked full-time once we opened the pizza parlor. Now I’ve been here 48 years!
Little S: I’ve always worked here, since I was a kid.
Christina: I’ve worked here my whole life too, I was 12 when i started in the bakery and 17 when I started behind the bar.
Q: What’s your favorite thing to make?
Big S: Pizza with pepperoni and cheese. It’s my favorite thing to eat too!
Q: What’s your most popular dish here?
Big and Little S: The eggplant parmesan is definitely really popular, and it’s also one of the things that takes the longest to make. We pan-fry the eggplant in olive oil and then top it with provolone on top of the parmesan…it’s time-consuming, but so good.
What’s the most memorable order you’ve had?
Little S: One time someone ordered pepperoni bread without the pepperoni. That was pretty crazy.
Q: Who’s been your most memorable customer?
All: The people here. We have families that have been coming here for three generations. Our kids grew up with their kids, and now we are feeding their kids’ kids. All these repeat customers, they are our favorite people.
Christina: Also the kindness of our guests makes them memorable. There are so many people we’ve built relationships with.
Ana and Christina: And the Eastern Europeans — working here you get to know so much about different cultures, and that’s a unique experience.
Q: When you have time to go out, where do you go and what do you eat?
Big S: I go to Winfields and like to order the catfish filet when it’s on the menu…it’s nice to eat some different kind of fish.
Little S: And the tuna nachos at Eli’s are really great, too.
Q: What food would you never eat again?
Big Steve: Any liver. I detest it
Little Steve: Caviar or anchovies — he loves him (points to his dad) and I definitely do not.
Q: What’s your favorite thing to eat here/what would you eat for your last meal?
Big Steve: Pepperoni pizza and puttensca pasta
Little Steve: Pepperoni pizza with banana peppers and puttensca pasta
Christina: Pepperoni pizza and pasta puttenesca. And I forgot about the banana peppers, those too!
Ana: Pepperoni pizza and pasta puttenesca
Q: What makes the pasta puttensca so good?
Christina: It’s the sauce, it’s really really good. It’s like a Sunday sauce, they start it on Sunday and it simmers for hours. I don’t know, it’s just the way my dad makes it is SO good.
I asked the Papas how they get along so well, and they gave me a group shrug: “We have work fights sometimes but then we punch out and go home and it’s over.” It’s clear how much they enjoy each other and how proud they are of the food and drink they offer. Like the food, drinks are also homemade — Ana makes a Limencello from scratch that can be paired with Prosecco for a refreshing drink. A Summer Smash drink consists of Deep Eddy Grapefruit Vodka, a cucumber-basil-mint muddle and cranberry juice, soda water, and a little agave. Both drinks paired well with the plethora of food we were served by the Papas.
A meatball bowl featured four enormous all-beef meatballs sitting in homemade sunday tomato sauce with basil, pecorino and romano cheese dusted over the top and delicious pillows of ricotta cheese dotting the outer rim on the bowl. The meatballs were fork-tender and the fresh tomatoes used in the sauce provided a nice burst of flavor.
A seafood casserole was surprisingly light given the ingredients — scallops, shrimp, lobster, pancetta, bacon and spinach in “mama butter” (a homemade butter created in the Papa kitchen over 30 years ago) and white wine sauce.
The seafood was cooked through, but still juicy with notes of the sea, and the sweetness of the fish was nicely tempered by the spinach and white wine sauce. This dish was a great no-carb option amidst a menu that is brimming with fresh pasta, delicious sauces, and other Italian classics.
We were able to sample both the eggplant rollatini which featured the Sunday sauce yet again and delicious cheese inside a beautiful slice of eggplant, and Ana was happy to offer me a “personal pizza” — a classic thin-crust pizza that is served in Naples Italy and the Papas have brought to Block Island. “What do you like on your pizza?” asked Ana, and I rattled off a list of my favorites. Moments later a thin, crispy-crusted pizza arrived brimming with tomato sauce, goat cheese, eggplant, mushrooms and onions. It was perfect, light, fresh, and delicious. The restaurant also serves a Four Season Pizza with each quarter representing a different season.
Chicken fingers were a big hit with me, my daughter and her friend Sara. A crunchy non-greasy crust keeps the juicy white chicken meat inside tender and moist, and the buffalo sauce served on the side added a nice bit of heat while allowing the tenders to remain the star of the plate.
I left the restaurant laden with leftovers and bathing in the banter of the Papa family. It took me 30 years to try Aldo’s restaurant, but now I see what so many have experienced and what I’ve been missing — the chance to eat real Italian food on an island that often is focused on seafood, and to be embraced as family during the first of what will be many times to come.