You know you're at the right place when you see the old, sky blue Fiat sitting on the sidewalk. It´s so cheesy, it could only come from someone who really means this sh*t. But let´s face it, you probably count as a tourist by being in the Bronx anyway, and half of the fun of Trattoria Zero Otto Nove is just visiting Arthur Avenue - New York´s final, shrinking, and honest-to-Santa Maria Little Italy. Get there before the stores close and buy some fresh Italian products from any one of the shops on the block. Need some help? Here's a map.
When you walk into Zero Otto Nove, you’ll notice some fanny-packed tourists nervously huddled next to a few heavily gold-chained, vaguely Paulie Walnuts-like types at the bar. Don't mind them. The hostess will bring you down a dark, skinny hallway that looks like an alley and feels like something from [insert lame Mafia joke I promised myself I wouldn't make in this review]. You then might have to duck under a few oncoming trays of food before ending up in the main dining room, which looks like a courtyard in an Italian village. I know, after the Fiat thing this probably sounds tacky as hell, but just trust us.
Once you reach the main dining room, you'll find it plastered with Italian political posters and various advertisements featuring women with absurdly big boobs and dudes in very tight shirts. It´s two floors, lit by giant sunlights, and centered around a huge pizza oven, which, by the way, will be giving you at least one pizza. All of this will please you.
Eventually you will make your way to some food food, which is excellent. Zero Otto Nove is run by a chef from the southern Italian region of Campania, Roberto Paciulo, who, luckily for us, is hell bent on colonizing this city. He knows his audience: a neighborhood that demands the classics in a city that demands the best. He´s also successfully pandering to Americans whose last name end in vowels and who seek out any and all connections to the fabled 'patria.'
Because of all that, the more or less static menu reflects a few red sauce standards, staples from Campania, and house created dishes. But the huge specials list is really where you need to be. These aren't the kind of specials made up from some tilapia because it didn't sell over the weekend, or truffle-flavor anything for that matter because Roberto is better than that. If it's in season, he's got a big, fat box of real truffles in the kitchen ready for deployment and he's definitely not selling you some old trash fish. Through his daily specials, Roberto tends to introduce ingredients and ideas that may have escaped older, more traditional Italian chefs who never had access to the range of products we have today.
Adding to it all is Zero Otto Nove's freakishly good-looking staff. Call me a sucker, but when a heavily accented European of any kind repeatedly throws his hands in the air and offers a three minute long explanation of just one special, I´m in. Bonus points if his eyes roll back in his head. This guy is getting paid like, three bucks an hour, but it's clear that he is just going to die if you don't try tonight's pasta in foil special. Order it along with the bottle of Barolo he's swearing on, let him hit on every woman at the table, and enjoy your trip.
Anything on the Specials List
We already covered this, but you should generally always spring for whatever the “pasta in foil” is that day, the meatball appetizer, and anything else that sounds good to you - particularly the meat and fish specials. Admittedly, there are some occasional misses, but it´s an acceptable price to pay for always being able to try something new that typically ends up being delicious.
This place has, somehow, managed to avoid appearing on most of those “Best of NYC” pizza lists that always feature the same ten places and offer absolutely nothing new to anyone reading it. The pizza here is f*cking excellent and rivals any other oven-cooked pie anywhere in the city, so much so that people often come just for the pizza (and get lured into ordering a few unexpected specials on the side). The mozzarella they use is made fresh right across the street. In particular, the Diavola is a favorite, although you really can´t go wrong with any of them.
Insalata di Mare
A fresh, light, and simple mess of squid, scallops, shrimp, octopus, clams, mussels, and calamari. If you´re a seafood person, this is a must-order from the menu.
Linguini al Nero di Sepp
We hate to say this, but after giving it a million chances over the years, this dish just isn´t that great. Some times are better than others, but often it doesn't have the flavor you expect from the squid ink, and it usually needs more garlic. The sepia and calamari are always fresh and cooked very well, though. Feel free to go there anyway, but you've been warned.
Required for first-timers, and a good side order, you know, “for the table” if you´re returning for the thousandth time. It`s a traditional baked pasta from the city of Salerno and it satisfies all meat and red sauce cravings.
Anything with Butternut Squash
They have a sausage appetizer that uses it, a soup, a pasta, and a couple of pizzas. Clearly, someone in the operation has a boner for butternut squash. Thankfully, it usually works, otherwise it would be overkill. Make the man happy and try one of em.
Espresso and Sambuca
End your meal the right way. You´re not really going to come all the way here, pretend you´re in Italy for a few hours, and not drive it home, are you?