Since 1992, Matteo’s has hewed closely to one of Long Island’s most successful dining models, family-style Italian: reasonably priced red-sauce cooking served in portions big enough to yield an extra lunch or two. But earlier this year, Gennaro Sbarro, who took over from the original owners in 2008, decided it was time to freshen the concept. Accordingly, the dining room has gone from drab to fab, a blend of marble, wood and stone that is contemporary, cool and comfortable.
The kitchen is now under the command of Anthony Martarana, whose resumé includes the Brass Rail in Locust Valley and Park Place in Floral Park. Martarana hasn’t dropped any popular items but has added New American and modern Italian dishes. But never fear, portions are still enormous.
Start your meal with Matteo’s very good clams oreganata, or try the new and expertly grilled octopus with firm white beans and ripe tomato. Another worthy newbie: fresh and creamy burrata served on toasted bread with arugula and balsamic. Tuna tartare, stacked on top of avocado with a crispy wonton garnish, looks every inch the New American appetizer, though our tuna was diced too finely to fully appreciate.
Wild mushroom risotto lacked the hard-won cohesion of a true, constantly stirred risotto, nor could I detect any of the menu’s promised truffle shavings, but these are semantic issues: It was very tasty. Truer to its description was one of Matteo’s classic pasta dishes, Nonna’s ragu, a Sunday gravy featuring hunks of short rib, meatballs, sausage and a big slab of ricotta to offset its deep-red savor.
While most dishes at Matteo’s come in two sizes (big and bigger), the new “specialties” entrees come in one (still big) size and are plated prettily in the New American manner. The whole branzino is a hit, accompanied by terrific roasted potatoes and broccoli rabe. But the braised short ribs were notable more for their size than flavor, their pretty asparagus garnish also bland. Veal chop paillard was a boring affair, topped with tomatoes not ripe enough for their supporting role.
The classic mains we tried were much more successful. Chicken Ultimate is a crafty dish perfect for the diner who can’t decide between Francese and Parmesan: lightly fried cutlets in a lemony sauce, topped with melted mozzarella and cherry peppers. Please never change, Chicken Ultimate. And if there were such a thing as innovative suburban Italian-American cuisine, its exemplar would be Matteo’s appealing Shrimp Wendy, plump shrimp sauteed with charred green beans.
A decorous tiramisu made a fitting finale, but I wish Martarana had tinkered with Matteo’s signature cannoli, a shallow, cream-filled cone too tough for fork or knife to penetrate.
Here’s what needs no tinkering at Matteo’s: assured, professional service and a dining room full of people apparently having a great time.