Not your mother’s Sunday gravy…
In a sea of Olive Gardens and Macaroni Grills, it can be hard to navigate your way to authentic Italian cuisine in Central Pennsylvania.
The LaBarck brothers have a thing or two say about that, but as co-owners of the recently opened Fratelli’s Towne Tavern, they let their food do the talking.
“For our own pride and our own self-respect, we just want it to be different than other people – even though it takes time,” says Anthony LaBarck, who along with his brother Ray owns the New Cumberland eatery.
The duo hail from Northern New Jersey – a Mecca for Italian fare. And they wanted to bring a taste of Italy with them after relocating to Pennsylvania.
“Most of [our] neighborhoods, everyone is old-school Italian,” says Ray. “So you grew up around Italians and their way of cooking. … Basically, it’s all about food up there.”
That means homemade sauces, hand-breaded chicken parmesan and slow-cooked gravy. (And no, that’s not the brown stuff you drizzle over Thanksgiving turkey.) It’s a marinara-cloaked entrée of homemade meatballs, spicy sausage and sweet, creamy ricotta cheese resting atop a generous scoop of rigatoni.
“I know just by going into the places [when] it’s from the jar and the meatballs are pre-frozen,” says Anthony. “Everything here that we do is just fresh. It takes us a long time. We have to put a lot of hours in.”
The easy way out was never an option for the Italian kinsmen. (“Brother,” by the way, translates to “Fratelli” in Italian.)
Meats are selected from nearby Warrington Farm Market. Staples such as manicotti, pierogies, bread, olive oil and garlic are all sourced from reputable North Jersey suppliers.
“I’m not looking for quickness. I’m looking for consistency,” says Anthony.
The brick-front tavern is the former home of local watering hole Carnahans. The LaBarcks sought to upgrade the space while still retaining the previous establishment’s regulars.
The end result is a beautifully refurbished, warmly lit tavern that appeals to both the dining and bar crowds.
Patrons seeking a sit-down experience can enjoy a secluded dining room area decorated with panoramic images of Italy. Those looking for a more casual scene need only walk through a door to the adjacent tavern. Think of it as a sports bar with Sicilian flair. Sixteen TVs hang amongst posters of The Godfather, the infamous Rat Pack and other Italian icons. An upstairs banquet room can comfortably accommodate 40 people.
“We do have a cheaper menu for the bar side,” says Anthony. “Other people that aren’t looking for a really big meal – just looking to fill their bellies a little before they drink – they could get that, too. We want to try to accommodate everybody.”
The tavern stays well stocked with favorites like Coors, Stella Artois, Tröegs and Yuengling on tap.
I ventured to Fratelli’s on a Saturday evening in March, pleased to find a friendly mix of couples, families and sports fans occupying both the dining and bar areas.
The meal began with a traditional appetizer of rice balls. From the start, I was impressed. (Sicilian roots – coupled with a few months spent living in Florence – have taught my taste buds to detect Italian done right.) Four golden brown shells filled with mozzarella, meat, peas and marinara were so hearty they could almost pass as a dinner.
Crowd pleasers such as cold antipasti, fried mozzarella triangles and meatball sliders fall in the $8-$12 range.
But the real star of the menu is the house special Sunday gravy – the aforementioned rigatoni dish steeped deep in Italian family tradition.
For those looking for something lighter on the carbs, hearty Giambotta-style entrees please the palate. This stew-like dish features a choice of sausage, chicken, pork chops or steak infused with peppers, onions, potatoes and sautéed mushrooms.
With pasta meals and main entrees ranging from $14-$22, the restaurant doesn’t skimp on serving size. My dining companion and I each took half of our meals to go.
“You’re not going to leave here hungry at all,” says Anthony.
Offering everything from linguini to stuffed shells, the menu holds enough variety to appease any pasta lover. Hearty soups and fresh made sandwiches fall in the $6-$10 range.
A delectable list of after-dinner drinks tempts you to linger at the tavern just a little bit longer. A few sips of chocolate hazelnut (a chocolate liqueur, Frangelico coffee and whipped cream concotion) is the perfect complement to Fratelli’s house-made tiramisu. The pastry’s decadent layers of ladyfingers, fluffy mascarpone cheese and espresso drizzled in chocolate did not disappoint.
While dining, it dawned on me much of Fratelli’s charm is in the little details: toasted sesame seeds on freshly warmed bread; an extra dash of chocolate chips on cannoli; a friendly greeting from the owners themselves.
“It’s nothing too fancy or anything like that. It’s just good, home-cooked Italian meals, says Ray. “How we would eat, we serve.”
• 209 Third Street, New Cumberland
• Daily, 11 a.m.-2 a.m. (kitchen closes at 10 p.m.)