This is the latest edition of Who Goes There? -- a new regular feature in which Lost City's Brooks of Sheffield cracks the doors on mysteriously enduring Gotham restaurants—unsung, curious neighborhood mainstays with the dusty, forgotten, determined look—to learn secrets of longevity and find out, who goes there.
Along the canyon of gritty attitude that is lower Second Avenue, the familiar red neon sign John’s of 12th Street acts as a friendly beacon, a reminder to trendoids heading to Momofuku of the stodgy, 100-year-old eating option around the corner. New York has many Italian restaurants like this, the kind that regulars boast have “the best Italian food in the city,” causing the uninitiated to scratch their heads as they rolls a flavorless meatball around in their mouth.
Truthfully, John’s is a cut above most. I had a pappardelle dish topped with a pork and beef ragu that my very-high-on-John’s boychik of a waiter said had been simmering for five hours. If it wasn’t the best ragu I’ve ever had, it certainly tasted as if time and love had been labored over it. And the garlic bread was moist and flavorful—a minor miracle where this tired old appetizer is concerned.
John’s recently celebrated a century in business by rolling back prices to 1908 levels for one day. My waiter said the place was packed all day, and at night there was a party full of friends and relatives. Among them must have been the East Village oldtimers who make up the bulk of John’s patrons, though travel guide write-ups bring in a fair amount of curious tourists.
Owners Mike Alpert and Nick Sitnycky can be found biding their time around the small central bar most nights. They bought it from the founding Pucciatti family in 1973 and have run it ever since. Landlords are not a problem; Sitnysky owns the building. They didn’t change anything, from the looks of it. The breakfront, the long murals lining the wall near the ceiling, the intricate tile floor, the many small, wood-framed, eye-level mirrors, all speak of prewar New York (that’s The Great War). The coat hooks are so old they look like they grew out of the wall.
I kind of love it that, at some of these tables, Italian-American anarchist Carlo Tresca often ate. But the thing that makes John’s John’s—the thing without which the restaurant would infinitely duller and less interesting—is the candle. Since sometime after Prohibition was repealed a candle has been lit in the same place at John’s every night, and the wax has accumulated so the restaurant has been partly taken over by a veritable mountain of white wax. The sight was much more ominous before the candle was relocated back to the far reaches of the eatery. Because it had grown so big, it was cut in half when it was moved. Do not leave John’s without giving the flames a good gander. The waxy wonder is half the reason for coming. It’s a wonder the place has never burned to the ground.