Every frequent restaurant goer wants to feel like an insider at our favorite spots or at otherwise buzzy places where snagging a table is something of a jockey sport.
At Ballato’s, the more than half-century-old red sauce Italian institution in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the latter means being plugged into the secret menu and knowing that these are dishes to request. Anyone who’s been here is all too aware of the famous and democratic no-reservations policy—a line spanning two or more hours is the inevitable precursor to any meal.
Below, get ready for the dish on one of New York's buzziest boîtes, and check out what our Inspectors had to say here.
The Vitolo family has owned and run Ballato’s since the 1980s, when Emilio Vitolo bought it from its original owner John Ballato. Today, Emilio commands a perch at the restaurant’s entryway while his wife, Lourdes, and their two sons, Emilio Jr. and Mario, work the front of the house. Their third son, Anthony, plays the role of executive chef and is behind the secret menu.
“It’s made up of recipes that I’ve experimented with over the years and love making for people who enjoy eating them, but they’re not written down anywhere or listed as specials,” he says.
Regulars, Anthony says, still turn to Ballato’s musts such as the supersized chicken parmesan and linguine vongole but gravitate more toward this lesser-known repertoire. Word that it exists is largely spread through food world chatter and Anthony’s Instagram account where he often posts pictures of enticing plates.
According to Anthony, the bestseller hands-down in the lineup of more than a dozen is the Veal Antonio, a pounded thin 16-ounce veal chop that’s breaded, fried and topped with a cream-based vodka sauce, prosciutto, fresh mozzarella and peas. The Mozzarella Carrozza, an Italian take on grilled cheese that’s stuffed with the eponymous cheese dipped in egg, crusted with panko and deep fried, is another gut-buster as the Carbonara.
Other pasta dishes include a basic as it comes Cacio e Pepe and the Penne Antonio with crumbled spicy pork sausage, peas, cream and diced plum tomatoes.
The only way for diners to get a taste of Anthony’s secret menu, he says, is for them to relay the request to their server or with him personally. “We’ll never tell you about it,” he says. “The people who know me well walk right into the kitchen in the back and tell me what they want themselves. It’s like I’m your friend cooking for you. I might be crazy with orders but comply with every ask.”
Up until now, anyone who wanted to experience Ballato’s hidden menu had to bear the wait for a table in New York, but, for the first time in its history, the Vitolo family is venturing beyond home base with a new restaurant in Fort Lauderdale. Named Vitolo’s and located at the Conrad Fort Lauderdale Beach hotel, it’s where Anthony plans to offer many of the items from his secret menu.
“We were ready to expand because Florida is booming, and it felt like the right time,” he says. With 180 seats, Vitolo’s is vastly larger than the 20 tables at Ballato’s and will see the chef serving new seafood-heavy creations such as lobster ravioli and shrimp fra diavolo that pay homage to Fort Lauderdale’s oceanfront setting “We’ve always been light on seafood at Ballato’s, but Vitolo’s is a chance for me to evolve as a chef,” says Anthony. “Who knows? The new dishes may show up on the secret menu in New York.”
Hero image: Eleven Media Agency