Pass the Red Sauce

For more than 60 years, there’s been plenty to eat at Bove’s 

Those were the days. You and your feckless buds at UVM or St. Mike’s finally made it to another weekend without flunking out. You had spent five grueling days in the same pair of socks and avoiding making your bed. Now you’re ready for a well-deserved evening of low-cost fun. That can mean only one thing: dinner at Bove’s.

One long-time patron describes Bove’s as a neighborhood Italian soup kitchen. You can, in fact, get a nice bowl of soup there, but it’s much more than that. It’s a trencherman’s delight, a red sauce heaven, a place to eat well and feel good about life, your fellow man and your own rosy prospects for the next few hours. It’s a local treasure, a public benefit, a good culinary citizen, an institution. It’s Italian and you’ll always remember it. But – let’s be honest – it’s not perfect.

Burlingtonians have supported Bove’s Café with gusto since Dec. 7, 1941, when the visionary Victoria and Louis Bove, Neapolitan immigrants, put a pot on to boil and served up that first big bowl of spaghetti. In American history, that was the “Day of Infamy,” yet it proved auspicious for the restaurant. It has been thriving ever since. A Bove still serves up great quantities of spaghetti and other Italian specialties every day of the week but Monday, with military attention to consistency and quantity. If the food isn’t three-star Michelin, no one is either surprised or complaining. You go to Bove’s for comfort, not style. You go to see family, neighbors, politicians, fellow sports fans.

There is an outside line of patrons on even the coldest winter nights – diners with meatballs, antipasto platters and overflowing plates of pasta on their minds.

The restaurant, at 68 Pearl St., is rather retro inside and out. It has 18 smallish tables that seat about 80 diners, a few banquettes along the walls, tiny but super-clean restrooms, a classic tin ceiling and a fat, fat menu.

The décor is strictly 1950s, heavy on Formica, vinyl upholstery and a jukebox.

Admittedly, Bove’s isn’t quite as busy as it once was. Dick Bove, whose kids now own the restaurant, says Burlington residents simply have more choices than they once did, and he doesn’t mind sharing the wealth. “There must be 600 places to eat just on Shelburne Road,” he says, with just a touch of hyperbole. “Of course that includes little ‘quick shops’ that make sandwiches, too. Not just sit-down places.”

Bove’s, though, seems to do OK no matter how you count the competition. It’s been around long enough that everyone pretty much knows what they’re in for. If you don’t, the first hint arrives not too far from the front door, where the cooking aromas are stunning. The smells of garlic, simmering meatballs and tomato sauce even waft onto the street. Wonder why? Start with more than a dozen pasta choices, all of which come with a good tomato sauce. The menu has a killer garlic sauce that Bove veterans find so flavorful it verges on hostility. There are chicken and steak and veal and chops and seafood. Eating there can be a test of manhood or womanhood.

Bove’s isn’t 100 percent terrific. The bread, for example, is soft and puffy and isn’t as crusty as fussy foodies might wish, but it does sop up the sauce. And I had fried clams that seemed a bit doughy and tasteless.

But most of the entrees are hits and come in prodigious portions.

When I was there I heard a waitress ask a patron in the middle of a meal how he was doing. “Workin’ on it,” he said, determined and enthusiastic.

A few minutes later, she must have detected a slowdown in his progress: “Everything OK?” He looked up from his plate and answered, “I’m still fighting.” Finally, though, he gave up on the Thursday special of stuffed pepper and spaghetti, good as it was. There was enough to still bring home to his fraternity brothers.

Nowadays, Bove’s offers even more.

You can buy its spaghetti sauces in jars at the supermarket. Same goes for the meatballs. The vodka sauce tastes remarkably like, well, vodka; and the red pepper variety is simply crammed with red peppers.

You don’t get Lydia Bastiani recipes on Pearl Street. The delicacy of the best Tuscan or Calabrian cuisine requires some sacrifices, and Bove’s is just too blue-collar for that. If you want a few baby artichokes carefully seasoned and delicately fried to the moment of perfection, try another neighborhood. If you want an old-fashioned feed, go to Boves.

Here’s a dish to try from the Bove’s Web site.

Penne Pasta Bovissimo
1 lb. penne pasta
2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
8 oz. ricotta cheese
1 jar Bove’s Romano Pomodoro Sauce (or your own tomato-sauce recipe, if you wish)
1/4 cup freshly chopped basil
1 tsp. dried oregano
1/4 cup breadcrumbs (optional)
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese (optional)

Preheat oven to 350. Grease an oven-proof dish with olive oil. Cook the pasta according to package directions and drain. In a large saucepan, simmer together the sauce, oregano and ricotta cheese until hot, stirring frequently. Gently stir in cooked penne and mix well.

Pour half the mixture into the prepared dish, sprinkle with half the mozzarella cheese and all the chopped basil.

Top with remaining penne mixture followed by the rest of the cheese. If desired, mix Parmesan cheese with breadcrumbs and sprinkle on top. Bake for 30 minutes. It serves four.