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Denny's Honors Brooklyn with Spaghetti and Meatballs

Denny's "Brooklyn Spaghetti & Meatballs," which will be served on the national diner chain's "Tour of America."
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BROOKLYN — In a move that could have local foodies choking on their artisanal quinoa, national diner chain Denny’s has declared humble spaghetti and meatballs the quintessential Brooklyn dish.

"So New York, so Italian," gushes the description of "Brooklyn Spaghetti & Meatballs" on Denny's menu. "Three seasoned meatballs atop a bed of pasta covered in rich, meaty tomato sauce. Served with a side of Parmesan cheese and garlic toast. Magnifico."

The Italian comfort-food classic is New York's entry on Denny's new Tour of America menu, which showcases regional delicacies such as the "Midwestern Meat & Potatoes Sandwich," "Malibu Fish Tacos," and "Florida Sunshine Salad."

However, some Italian-Americans in the food biz were skeptical about Denny's homage to the motherland.

"Please. Leave that to the pizzerias and the restaurants," scoffed Tony K., an employee making a stuffed meat pie behind the counter at Antonio's, a Flatbush Avenue pizza and pasta place that's been in business more than 50 years.

"That's like McDonald's making spaghetti and meatballs. Is it going to be from a can? Just leave Brooklyn out of it."

Michelle Pagliarella, manager of Giovanni's Brooklyn Eats on Eighth and Prospect avenues, said she was sure Denny's would do brisk business selling the Brooklyn-inspired dish but doubted whether it would taste authentic.

"They're all about the money, not about the food like us local guys," said Pagliarella, whose parents hail from Northern Italy. "We actually care about what we give customers."

Giovanni's is owned by Giovanni Tafuri, whose family traces its roots to Calabria. Pagliarella declined to name the secret ingredients in the restaurant's meatball recipe, which she said had been in Tafuri's family for "probably 100 years." 

The mystery formula seems to be working. One reviewer praised the meatballs as "ethereally light," and noted that the prices at Giovanni's are "shockingly reasonable." The spaghetti with "Nonna's famous meatballs" is a mere $9.95.

Denny's Brooklyn Spaghetti & Meatballs, which was "developed" by Denny's corporate chef Scott Richard, will sell for $8.69.

As to why Denny's selected pasta and meat sauce over Brooklyn culinary contributions such as Junior's cheesecake or Nathan's Famous hot dogs, a spokeswoman said that the dish is "an Americanized version of a traditional Italian dish in much the same way as many of the Italian neighborhoods of Brooklyn carry on Italian traditions in the American landscape."

The borough still has a sizeable Italian-American community, 6 percent of Brooklyn's population claims Italian ancestry, according to the latest census figures. Pasta dinner with Sunday-style gravy is still a menu staple at traditional restaurants like Park Slope's Anthony’s and Williamsburg's Bamonte's.

But Denny's choice of old-school noodles and red sauce to represent the borough, first reported on F'd in Park Slope, doesn’t quite jibe with Brooklyn’s new image as an incubator of innovative eateries that favor food fresh from the farmers market.

"Spaghetti and meat sauce is SOOOO 1980's Brooklyn," wrote F'd in Park Slope. "You want to make a new meal that screams Brooklyn? Try a farm-raised...roasted chicken sandwich on 37-grain homemade bread lightly spackled with white truffle mayo and served with chilled root soup topped with an aged parmesan foam."

Indeed, the simple Denny's dish is a far cry from what's served at restaurants known for "New Brooklyn Cuisine," a culinary movement that's been celebrated in magazine articles and cookbooks like "The New Brooklyn Cookbook."

For example, critically acclaimed Franny's in Park Slope sells locally sourced "environmentally-responsible" pizza topped with organic ingredients, while the New York Times dubbed Bushwick's Roberta's "one of the more extraordinary restaurants in the United States." The Park Slope trattoria Al Di La on Fifth Avenue menu includes a tagliatelle pasta with meat sauce for $16.50 and homemade black spaghetti with crab meat for $18.

Unfortunately Brooklynites will have to travel if they want to sample their borough's offering on the Denny's menu. The closest outpost of Denny's, which is headquartered in Spartanburg, S.C., and has 1,680 restaurants worldwide, is in Avenel, N.J., about 20 miles away.