East End “John-John” Embraces Local Comfort Cuisine Stalwarts

I am a child of the sixties. I was born early in that decade, on the same day as John F. Kennedy, Jr. I more than casually followed his life, believing somehow, our shared birth date earned me privilege and “royal” American lineage; that my life might somehow be Kennedy-like. I was naïve. I am a second generation Armenian American born to hardworking parents. Even so, I sometimes wondered what it would be like to be friends with John-John. Our early family vacations were humble, but happy times, spent in Plymouth, Massachusetts at an Armenian hotel. Hilltop Mansion Hotel was literally at the top of a hill, at the end of a long winding road. “Hilltop” as we called it, catered to my tribe, my people. We enjoyed sojourns to the Cape, Hyannis, and even drove by the Kennedy compound. I was in awe.

Food was central to my upbringing. I was fortunate to have a home-cooked meal at dinner every night. Dinner was a family affair. We all pitched in. My working mother insisted we have something different every night, with no repetition for several weeks at a time. We begged for our favorite Cheese Macaroni, Beef Stroganoff, Stuffed Grapeleaves and anything with lamb! Unfortunately, Mom had those dishes (and other standbys) on a six week rotation! She kept meticulous culinary records. Ask me what was served on Christmas, 1962 and who attended, and I can present proper documentation from her food archives! To this day, my Mom has been my culinary inspiration.

While my TV time was restricted (a novel idea by today’s standards), favorite shows which remain forever etched in my memory include Leave It To Beaver, Andy Griffith and The Dick Van Dyke Show. TV life was broadcast in black and white. Life seemed less complicated. Humor was real and clever, not contrived. Civility seemed more the norm. Children could play in the neighborhood, riding their bikes far–just being kids, without being tethered to home or “play dates”–without the fear of harsh, modern day realities. Like my family, TV families back then sat around the kitchen table and shared a meal and actually talked, debated, and sometimes children even fought. There were no distracting smart phones, answering machines, or McMansions with kitchen TVs. It was a simpler time–a comfortable time.

Perhaps my fond memories of childhood and dining continue to draw me towards comfort dining as an adult on the East End. Even though I consider myself an accomplished home cook, orchestrating elaborate, well-planned dinner parties, sporting a professional culinary school education (with highest honors), my East End comfort food restaurants of choice remain Il Capuccino in Sag Harbor and Sam’s and John Papas Café in East Hampton. Their food and service remain consistently outstanding. These restaurants bring us back to another era, somehow frozen in time, from their architecture, menu fare and service, to their reasonable prices. For me, they are, well, comfortable. I’m not surprised that Sam’s has been in business since well before I was born. Il Capuccino has a 30-plus year track record and John Papas Café has been serving comfort meals for nearly 20 years. Don’t get me wrong. I will gladly belly up to the finest, sophisticated dining venue. Someone please take me to the North Fork Table and Inn, Topping Rose House and Vine Street Café. I have enjoyed meals at these fine establishments. They have their place; however, they are not casual, comfort food stalwarts.

Il Capuccino is unpretentious and deliberately missing from OpenTable. It’s hard to find the entrance, since the restaurant’s frontage rambles up the street. Il Capuccino’s dim lighting, cranberry glass votives adorning every table, straw wine bottles hanging from the ceiling, red and white-checked table cloths, and moderate prices harken back to an earlier time. This is a restaurant for locals–perhaps ring-fenced from those not in the know. I actually overheard a summer Hamptons “interloper” once exclaim, “If it’s not on OpenTable, it must be bad. Why would I go there?” That’s right–keep thinking that, so the rest of us locals and respectful visitors can enjoy the treasured dining gems of the East End. Service is friendly and kind, unhurried–in fact, very unrushed (even on a Saturday night). For me, the food evokes memories of Mario’s in Clifton, NJ, our family go-to pizza/red sauce restaurant for dependable, casual, Italian fare. Wine by the glass at $8.50, amazing eggplant, chicken and veal parm with the perfect tomato sauce are served nightly. The complimentary basket of garlic knots can be smelled upon exiting the kitchen! This delicious bread arrives bathed in chopped garlic, cheese and dripping in olive oil. Looking around the dining room, I can spot no apparent “fabulous folk,” glitterati or entourage-laden paparazzi from the western megalopolis. Il Capuccino oozes comfortable, familiar, old-world Italian charm from another time. Thank you!

Sam’s doesn’t take reservations. It may be harder to nab a table during the height of service, but I don’t mind. Like Il Capuccino, you cannot find Sam’s on OpenTable and caters more to the locals. In an unassuming storefront sporting a vintage neon sign, I imagine that Frank Sinatra and the rest of his “Rat Pack” would have chosen Sam’s for a good Italian meal. Vintage ambience–leave it alone! The paneling reminds me of my basement as a kid, and the black leather booths are easy to slide in and out. Recently, our waitress happily demonstrated how the green lamps above the booths are dimmed. Have a drink at the bar while waiting for takeout, or just have a drink and ponder the bar mural. But it’s not just the cozy environment and friendly staff that make Sam’s a success. The pizza is perfection, with just the right amount of cheese and sauce and the salads are always fresh and crisp. Sam’s is the kind of place made for the familiar oil and vinegar glass cruets with the metal toppers. The entrees are just plain delicious without fanfare. The steamed mussels are fresh from the sea with an amazing garlic broth over pasta and the fresh chopped clams over linguine are equally as good. We are on the East End, and seafood here is fresh and served up with Italian flair. Sam’s is an institution and deserves special mention in the National Register of Historic Places!

John Papas Café is diner-like, but feels more like a luncheonette-hybrid with its swivel stools at the counter, and light wooden booths and tables. Tucked away at the end of the main East Hampton shopping area, it is easy to miss, but hard to forget. The food is reliably delicious, not fussy and the service is friendly, accommodating and punctual. Greek favorites dot the menu, and the fare is reminiscent of a classic New Jersey diner. Bussing tables at the Tick Tock Diner in Clifton, NJ was my first job at 16. That’s when my diner love affair began. Culinary school instructs students to keep a focused menu to ensure consistency and manage food costs. Yet, John Papas (and most diners) have perfected the formula of extensive breakfast, lunch and dinner offerings with daily specials at a moderate price point. The Café is the place for breakfast. While menus are available, you know what they have. This is a luncheonette-diner after all. Eggs arrive hot and are always prepared to the customers’ liking. They even have turkey bacon for those unfortunate few, trimming down their pork intake! The smell of breakfast is coffee, eggs and bacon amidst some clanking dishes, and maybe a crying baby once and a while. Lunch and dinner should not be missed. I can’t resist the Reuben (not during swimtrunk season though). A snappy pickle and crunchy coleslaw accompany the Reuben and burger dishes.

I was lucky this week to witness the drama unfold regarding a potential star sighting at John Papas Café. The “star” turned out to be a computer programmer, but the two ladies at the counter were not easily convinced—something about a car dealership commercial. The point here is you will find local banter, and folk unafraid to chat up those nearby, or in the case of the “star”, from swivel stool across to window booth!

I’d like to believe JFK, Jr. enjoyed comfort food. I read one of his favorite meals was cold shepherd’s pie and profiteroles. He also frequented Bubby’s in Tribeca which began as a pie company and morphed into a comfort food destination. So perhaps he would have enjoyed a comfort meal on the East End… Time marches on.

Things change, people change. But we all derive comfort from the wonderful pleasures of life which somehow fight back the never ending onslaught of change, preserving an era, bringing us simple joys. To Il Capuccino, Sam’s, and John Papas Café, I say “Thank you!” Please stay forever. Never change. That is my wish.