There are neighborhood Italian restaurants in New York that you go to primarily for comfort: the motherly warmth of the room, the staff, the clientele, and, somewhat incidentally, the food. There are white-tablecloth Italian restaurants that take pains to distinguish themselves from the homely neighborhood joints by offering caviar service and charging $45 an entrée. And then there is “Ze Spot.”
That’s the informal name of Il Posto Accanto, a cramped, eccentric little restaurant that has occupied a storefront on East Second Street between Avenues A and B since the 1990s. It’s a nod, this nickname, to the thick Roman accent of the restaurant’s chef and co-pilot, Beatrice Tosti di Valminuta.
Nearly every day, Bea, as she is widely known, posts a vignette on Il Posto Accanto’s Instagram feed, greeting her 12,000 followers as “pe-TOO-nyas” and detailing the “terrible food” that she is preparing: a tonnarelli cacio e pepe topped with carciofi fritti, say, or codfish Livornese, or a spicy tomato-and-pork-belly sauce, with the caveat that, “if you are in the mood for a white ragu, you are sheet out of lahk.”
Sometimes this video is a double act featuring Il Posto Accanto’s other principal: Bea’s husband, Julio Pena, who runs the front of the house and is known to his wife as “Babycakes.”
Their Instagram film shorts are reality television at its richest: the blonde Bea, forever exuberant in her blue-tinted horn rims, flaunting her wares and her formidable bosom (“Boob cam!”) while the gray-bearded Julio, an Afro-Dominican hepcat who grew up in Washington Heights, offers straight-man commentary in a stoner deadpan.
But the in-person experience is way better. Il Posto Accanto offers some of the best food and street theater that New York City has to offer. If you’ve ever wanted to eat superior house-made pasta and drink excellent Italian wine while living temporarily in a Jim Jarmusch film, this is your place.
“I’m not really into bar culture, but Il Posto is my Cheers, or maybe I’m their Norm,” said Padma Lakshmi, the Top Chef host and cookbook author, who used to live down the street from the restaurant and still visits frequently. “My daughter has literally grown up there,” she said, “and I’d let her sit there by herself, even though she’s barely a tween.”
Like Lakshmi, I cannot even pretend to be unbiased. My wife and I have been regulars for years, and, like a lot of Il Posto’s habitués, our lives have become entwined with Bea and Julio’s. On a good day, I might encounter Bea in the morning at the Union Square Greenmarket, exchange texts with Julio in the afternoon, and spend the evening at a window table with a stack of grilled Jimmy Nardello peppers and a bowl of spaghetti alla chitarra con bottarga.
“I’m not really into bar culture, but Il Posto is my Cheers, or maybe I’m their Norm,” said Padma Lakshmi.
When Bea and Julio applied to the State Liquor Authority for permission to serve spirits in addition to wine, I wrote a letter to Manhattan Community Board 3 attesting to their impeccable character. (Their request was recently granted.) When I harvested a bumper crop of squash blossoms from the garden of a friend’s summer house, Bea responded immediately to my urgent request for her crispy-frying technique. Over heavy pours of Barbera d’Asti, Julio has confided in me about various bouts of tsuris—the scourge of Seamless and Grubhub, the surgery he needed to correct an eyelid droop. He, in turn, knows more about the personal lives of my now adult children, who have been coming to Ze Spot since they were little, than I do.
For this article, I dropped by Il Posto at lunchtime on a warm autumn day, joining Beatrice and Julio at an outdoor table that looks out onto Second Street. She was methodically paring down a massive mound of fresh puntarelle stalks into dainty green slivers that would appear later dressed in olive oil, lemon juice, and anchovy paste. He alternated between sitting and pacing the sidewalk on his cell phone, taking reservations, and arguing with his auto mechanic. With minimal prompting, they told their story.
When Julio Met Bea
Bea and Julio met in 1992 at the SoHo restaurant Lucky Strike. Instantly besotted, Julio guided Bea by the arm to the after-hours East Village club Save the Robots. She was an itinerant adventurer, the food-mad, full-figured outlier in an aristocratic, aggressively slim Italian family. Her father and grandfather were counts descended from a long line of landed duchi di Valminuta; “I like to refer to myself as a cuntessa,” Bea told me. Julio was the son of evangelical immigrants from the Dominican Republic, an autodidact and aspiring airplane mechanic lured downtown from 160th Street by his love of music, food, and mischief.
The actress and cooking-show host Debi Mazar remembers meeting Bea in their days as young Lower East Side scenesters, through their mutual friend Danilo Dixon, the hairstylist. “I knew Julio separately, through my guy friends,” Mazar said. “It made sense when they got together—they had the same dark, twisted sense of humor.”
By ’94, Bea and Julio were married. Bea, already a connoisseur of body art, persuaded Julio to go in with her on matching Native American–pattern thunderbird tattoos. Bea wore multiple bracelets on her wrists, so Julio started wearing multiple chunky rings on his fingers. After that, there was no going back. At his father’s funeral, on a hot summer day, Julio’s sleeves rode up, revealing his inked forearms and horrifying his mother: “She said, ‘Oh my God, what did you do to the body that our lord Jesus Christ gave you? The sin! The sin!’” (Mrs. Pena, now 99, has since reconciled herself to her son’s choices.)
Bea and Julio’s first joint venture, Il Bagatto, opened on the Second Street block in 1995. Il Posto Accanto (the Place Next Door) opened four years later as a wine bar. The two restaurants ran contiguously until 2013, when Bea and Julio consolidated them into a single entity.
From the beginning, the couple engendered fierce loyalty. The street’s drug dealers, a more pronounced presence in the 90s, helped them haul in grocery deliveries. The cops from the local precinct house and the firemen from the local ladder company regularly attended their summer barbecues. “It was rough after September 11, because three-quarters of the guys that hung out with us passed,” Julio said.
“It made sense when they got together—they had the same dark, twisted sense of humor.”
Through Joe Esposito, a former N.Y.P.D. chief of department and Il Bagatto customer, Pena became friendly with Monsignor David Cassato, a Bensonhurst priest who has also served as a police chaplain. Out of this relationship began an annual tradition that has been interrupted only by coronavirus-era lockdowns: just before Christmas, the N.Y.P.D.’s chaplains of all denominations gather at Il Posto for a raucous, celebratory end-of-year lunch. (Well, not quite all: “The imam never shows up,” Julio said.)
Bea and Julio’s small-scale Instagram fame is a more recent phenomenon, instigated by another of their regulars, Jeffrey Henderson. A footwear designer, Henderson took to spending his midday hours at Il Posto with his laptop after he left his job at Nike to cook up his next act. “I got to see all the behind-the-scenes stuff at the restaurant, and it was so authentic and funny,” Henderson said. “I said to Julio, ‘You’re all complete idiots and you’re amazing. You’re real New Yorkers, and there aren’t a lot of them left.’”
Recognizing a content gold mine, Henderson set up Il Posto Accanto’s Web site and Instagram account and began filming Bea and Julio, telling them that he was merely taking photos. “I didn’t edit anything. I just posted what they did,” he said.
Since then, Bea and Julio have become their own producers. Their short videos are a funny and, dare I say it, moving portrayal of the daily life of a happily married couple and the work family they have created.
Some of the clips include the Ecuadorean brothers who have been with them since the 90s, Vinny and Milton Arce, who started out as, respectively, a busboy and a salad-prep man. Vinny, suave and ponytailed, is now the house wine expert and oversees the restaurant’s operations with Julio and another immigrant from Ecuador, Ricky Chabla. Milton is now Bea’s kitchen deputy and a virtuosic practitioner of Italian cuisine in his own right. “He wasn’t ruined by anybody else. So everything he cooks, he cooks like I cook it,” Bea said.
“One great thing about Beatrice’s cooking is that she has infiltrated every province in Italy, but she’s also let some of Julio’s Caribbean in,” Mazar said. “Especially in her salads—she’ll make the colors pop with the brightest vegetables from the farmers market, and she’ll make the dressing citrusy.”
On any given night, Ze Spot is jammed with a wildly diverse crowd: the jewelry designer Prince Dimitri of Yugoslavia; the hip-hop street photographer Sue Kwon; hedgie dudes in suits; artists in splattered coveralls; the withered and senescent; the young and basic.
“One great thing about Beatrice’s cooking is that she has infiltrated every province in Italy, but she’s also let some of Julio’s Caribbean in.”
Julio is as adept a manager of this parade as Beatrice is a cook. He does grant, however, that he has a set of detractors who believe him to be an ornery bastard. Not my experience; I’ve never heard the man so much as raise his voice.
That said, I have seen him stand firm in the face of overly pushy customers who expect an Italian restaurant to be fronted by a “Mangia, mangia” glad-hander rather than a stoically dignified brown-skinned man. A one-star Yelp review from August castigated the restaurant for its “terrible security guy, very mean, clearly doesn’t know how to work around people, he needs to be fired.” (Bea now revels in calling Julio “the security guy.”)
More recently, a party of young women took issue with the waitstaff’s refusal to grant a request for grated Parmigiano cheese on an order of linguine alle vongole. That’s just not done at Il Posto Accanto. To the customer in question, Julio offered a compromise of a mild pecorino whose flavor was less likely to clash with that of the fresh clams. “She was like, ‘No, I want this because I want it,’” Julio said. “So I say to Vinny, ‘Take the linguine vongole off the check.’ To them I said, ‘Finish your food, finish your wine, you’re done here. There’s nothing else to discuss.’”
“It’s like asking for ketchup in a Japanese restaurant,” said Bea.
Julio continued: “And I was like, ‘You know what? I know you’re going to put this in your Yelp review, so please make sure that you say I’m the owner and not the security guy.’” (The women obliged. Wrote one: “The owner of the restaurant yelled at us until all three of us girls were reduced to tears.”)
Julio and Bea make no apologies for such episodes, but they don’t revel in them. “A lot of people who are disrespectful to the staff call me an asshole, and I embrace my asshole-dom,” Julio said. “But if you’re nice, I treat you fuckin’ nice.”
“Babycakes is nice,” Bea said. “Look, I could never have done this restaurant without Julio. Because he loves me.”
Therein lies much of Il Posto Accanto’s durability and charm. “Watching Julio and Bea interact and engage, they’re still like two teenagers who just met,” said Henderson. “They argue all the time, but they’re crazy about each other and never want to be apart.”
Come to Ze Spot for the calamari; stay for the love story.
David Kamp is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL and the author of several books, including The United States of Arugula: The Sun Dried, Cold Pressed, Dark Roasted, Extra Virgin Story of the American Food Revolution