As I walk through the old-fashioned wooden doors of Ricobene’s, the Diana Ross classic “I’m Coming Out” softly directs me towards the old-school counter in a mesmerizing fashion. Ricobene’s is a family-owned Bridgeport institution. Started by twin brothers and kept in the family to this day, this well-loved eatery has been serving up a comprehensive menu of Italian-American classics, fast food staples–and bizarrely enough–house-smoked barbecue since 1946. Everyone and their mother seem to have eaten here, from cops to Mayor Daley, the Bridgeport native whose framed and signed picture hangs amongst the hundreds of others on the surprisingly warm white walls. Behind the old-school counter, a middle-aged lady impatiently requests my order. I ask her a couple of questions and her intimidating exterior is immediately broken. She tells me her name is Helen, that she’s been working at Ricobene’s for 25 years (as have most of the ladies working up front), and that I need to try the breaded steak sandwich. Helen demonstrates an excellent knowledge of the food’s preparation and responds positively to both compliment and complaint. She informs me that my food will take approximately 20 minutes to be ready. This might seem a little absurd at a place that looks like Sbarro’s at its quaintest and most authentic. However, I have ordered the rib tips, among other things, and a barbecue dish needs prep time before being served. As I wait I take in my surroundings. It’s 2pm, well after the standard American lunch hour, but the place is still pretty full. There are plenty of open seats in the large two-room restaurant, but all of the customers seem to be congregated in one area. Although hardly anyone in the restaurant knows the other patrons, there’s a sense of dining with the family, of being brought together by food. The room feels warm. It’s the pastry shop in Rome my Grandma would take me to on Sunday afternoons. It’s the under-appreciated deli in Brooklyn, with the white-and-black tiled floors reminiscent of simpler times when a good sandwich was a good sandwich regardless of whether it had Yelp’s cyber-stamp of approval.
Finally, order number 704 is called up at the register and I grab my black tray arrayed with sandwiches wrapped in aluminum foil, pizza served on a paper plate, and barbecue rib tips concealed in a Styrofoam box. I sit down at one of the stone-top tables, excited to begin my feast. As soon as I take a bite of the warm garlic bread, a French loaf that’s crispy on the outside and delightfully chewy on the inside, I know this is going to be a dizzying journey of exciting flavors and reckless overeating.
The pizza catches my attention first; it’s made in-house and reheated in the oven, a much-appreciated gesture that some establishments skip. Although I opted for the deep-dish cheese pizza, a nice crunchy slice with a good sauce and a crust that refrains from obnoxious butteriness, there is a wide selection of toppings and both thin- and thick-crust options.
Next I dive into the house-smoked barbecue. Although it’s heavily-sauced, the quality of the meat is not bad. If you like your ribs drier, consider ordering the sauce on the side or simply asking for less of it. One benefit of the generous amounts of sauce, however, is that it spills onto the fries that come on the side. These spuds are pretty scrumptious on their own, but when drenched in sauce they take on a new and exciting life. They become a fork and knife job worth the undertaking and outshine, in my opinion, the actual protein.
The climax of my Ricobene’s experience is, without a doubt, the sandwiches. Both the chicken parmigiana and the breaded steak are, quite frankly, killer. Although there is a rather long list of toppings one could add to these gut-busting behemoths, I find that less is more and would suggest sticking to one–perhaps the oozy melted mozzarella or the crunchy sweet peppers. Although both sandwiches are excellent, the breaded steak is something special. I bite into this sandwich and am bombarded by its comforting yet complex flavors. I get the warm beefy flavor of the steak right away. The richness of the breading is next, followed by the tang of the generously ladled marinara sauce. Finally, there’s the bread. The French loaf soaks up the sauce, yet retains its body and its personality, making the sandwich really “addictive,” as the customer waiting behind me in line puts it.
I finish my meal with a warm, fuzzy feeling in my stomach and ready to take a nap: a feeling to aspire to after any fine meal, and at Ricobene’s it comes for under 10 bucks. I dispose of my trash, bid Helen farewell, and exit the restaurant to the triumphant sound of “I’m Still Standing” by Elton John. I am pleased with the food, thrilled by the promise of leftovers to come, and assured that Italian-American fare is being served with care and pride in Bridgeport.
252 W. 26th St. Monday-Thursday, 10am-12:30am; Friday-Saturday, 10am-2am; Sunday, 10am-midnight. (312)255-5555. ricobenesfamoussteaks.com