Originally opened in 1932 only a few blocks away, Pietro’s has changed owners and locations but continues to thrive. Serving well-aged steaks and Italian classics, the restaurant remains a favorite with locals and those who continue to travel from Long Island, Connecticut and New Jersey to savor the incredible meals that are consistently delectable. As Bill Bruckman, the present owner, described it to me, ninety-five percent of the clientele are regulars and have been coming to Pietro’s for generations. “People drive in from all over on a regular basis,” he said. He laughed and added, “You would think that there aren’t any good Italian restaurants anywhere else.” To honor the regulars, there is a “wall of fame” that allows people to add their family tree, and there are gold plaques scattered throughout the space recognizing Pietro’s most loyal customers.
Having had some marvelous meals at Pietro’s over the years, I was eager to sit down with Bill and learn more about the restaurant’s history. I found it fascinating that there was no explanation as to how two Italian brothers, the original owners, decided on its name. They arrived in New York from Italy in the early 1930s and opened their restaurant on 45th Street and Third Avenue – Natala was the chef, while Pietro handled the front of the room, yet only Pietro had his name inscribed on the door.
According to Bill, by 1970 the two brothers decided to retire, and it was their head waiter who took over for a number of years, followed by his son. Beginning in the 1960s, Bill’s father-in-law worked at Pietro’s, and when they needed a busboy in 1984 (when they moved to their present address) he recommended his son-in-law. Bill worked himself up to being a waiter and in 1994, together with three partners, had the opportunity to acquire this Manhattan staple.
In addition to the fantastic food, I am certain that it is the old fashioned waitstaff that drive people to return. Bill believes that one must have excellent service to back up the food. There are many men who have been with Pietro’s for decades. For instance, Bruno, who I have met on several occasions, is a wonderful example of a loyal and genuine Italian waiter. If one insists, he will give them a menu, but he prefers to recite the list of specials and then continue on with the rest of the menu, without missing a beat. At some point during the recitation, he is certain to announce, “You don’t eat better than this!”
In 2016, on the day that we returned to update our feature article on Pietro’s Bruno ready to greet us. Prior to Pietro’s, he had been a waiter at the original Palm for some forty years. He told me that he began his career in 1968, and then quickly added, “But this is the best restaurant to work for.” Bruno told me that his father had worked at Pietro’s in the 1960s and he was pleased to say he believes that he has the “closest relationship to the restaurant’s past.” There is a warm camaraderie among the men who serve the guests. They take their job very seriously, but also know how to joke with the customers and each other. I found myself laughing the entire time I was there.
Stepping inside the kitchen, we met Chef Luis who has been cooking at Pietro’s for five years. Bill said that the kitchen staff is an amazing team with five guys on the line working cohesively with the chef as they turn out dish after dish. Witnessing this amazing team at work was a treat. When I commented to Bill on how everyone cooked in perfect harmony, he smiled from ear to ear and said, “These guys can turn out 125 dinners at a time on any busy night. They are so in tune with one another.”
Everything is cooked to order and Tom, our photographer, was in classic Italian heaven as he sat down with a plate of meatballs and spaghetti and Pietro’s chopped salad. The Chicken Parmesan, considered one of the best in the city, was the show stopper, pounded as thin as can be with an equally thin layer of their secret tomato sauce recipe and then perfectly crusted Parmesan melted across the top.
Bill is proud of the fact that the restaurant remains “old school,” and stated, “we refuse to change.” He went on to say that “the decor is not exciting,” but he believes that this “isn’t why people come here.” They come for the food, and they return time and again for the people who make their meals memorable.