Jane Stern: Ralph 'n' Rich's offers good food, comfort in downtown Bridgeport

Photo of Jane Stern

Not terribly long ago every big city had a place where men in business suits went for lunch, downed a martini or two and took a break from whatever was in their stuffed briefcases.

I am not a man, I do not wear a suit or carry a bulging briefcase and I do not especially like martinis, but I always loved to have a meal at these “Mad Men” style joints. My favorites were the late lamented Caucus Club in Cleveland and the still thriving Army Navy Club in Washington, D.C., that serves the best crab cakes in the world and instead of pinstripe suits the clientele wear high-ranking military uniforms festooned with medals. If they have a briefcase, it probably contains the code to launch a nuke.

So it was a happy find that I found myself at Ralph ’n’ Rich’s, a wonderful restaurant located directly across the street from the P.T. Barnum museum building, possibly the coolest piece of architecture in the state. I had never heard of Ralph or Rich and stumbled upon their downtown Bridgeport restaurant by accident after a disastrous day of reviewing that went from bad to unspeakable. By the time I lurched through the door at Ralph ‘n’ Rich’s, I was frazzled and cranky and did not care if I could review the place or not, I just wanted to sit down and order something to eat.

And what a great surprise it was. I walked into a large gracious eatery, padded and upholstered chairs, crisp linen on the tables, veteran waiters and waitresses who looked like they had written the book on correct service. I was dining alone (yes, the dreaded single customer), but I was not brought to a back table in “Siberia,” but swept with consummate grace smack dab in the center of the dining room. A linen napkin was unfurled on my lap and a menu came right away.

Although Ralph ’n’ Rich’s is what I might have referred to as a “man’s club” it is far more democratic. This is not a Peter Lugar wannabe steakhouse; the menu and clientele are not as limited. Yes, there were tables of guys discussing what happened in court that morning, but also plenty of business women and a family or two. Ralph ’n’ Rich’s is very much a neighborhood cornerstone designed to suit all tastes.

One of the unusual things is that they have menus designed for groups, the feasts are family style, meaning big platters of food comes from the kitchen, and people share. The cuisine is Italian: the unparalleled kind of Italian food our state is best at. Even though this is a pretty upscale restaurant, it still feels like Mama’s dining room.

If you are a group of four you can expect four family style courses, all designed to be shared. The starter is a generous antipasto platter, filled with salami and other charcuterie, olives, cheeses, carrot sticks, peppers and a selection of Italian cheeses.

The second course is pasta, and includes not just noodles but pasta dishes like beef braciola. On the pasta menu you will find linguini, shells, spaghetti, ziti all bathed in Ralph and Rich’s “Sunday Sauce” a red tomato gravy that would be hard to find a better version of.

Next come the entrees, and here are a nice mix of Mediterranean standards like chicken Milanese or tender roast pork.

Ralph ’n’ Rich’s

185 Main St., Bridgeport

Save a tiny pocket of room for dessert with your espresso; you will be served a large plate of Italian bakery cookies, my favorite being the sesame ones.

You do not have to eat family style here. As a single dinner I would have felt awkward with four huge platters of food in front of me. Fortunately, there is a perfectly delicious “normal” menu. On it are dishes everyone will like, for example, Burrata cheese and blackened chicken, and for real down-home tastes there are a few items like tripe with ceci beans that in all my years of reviewing I have never seen on a menu.

My absolute favorite menu item was the colossal shrimp with crabmeat and artichoke hearts. Big shrimp are funny because just by the nature of these impressive giants they are often tasteless. I guess the diner is supposed to just gasp and exclaim “they’re huge” and forget the addendum that they have no flavor. Here, this is not the case. The shrimp are huge, but they have the succulence of scampi. You get a lot of bang for your buck with this one and it is a great dish.

I should mention that there is a large comfortable bar at one end of this restaurant and an extensive raw bar menu that features very fresh shrimp, oysters and clams. There are days when an ice-cold gin and tonic loaded with limes and a plate of snapping fresh shrimp is my idea of heaven. I will be back here when the weather turns warm.

I may have mentioned (at least a million times) in this column that I know immediately if the food at a restaurant will be any good by the bread brought to the table. So for the million and first time, let me restate that rule and tell you that the basket of crusty Italian bread served here was my first inkling of the treats to come. I do not know which local bakery they use, but someone running the kitchen put a lot of work into finding the real McCoy.

In our heavily Italian state, there is no excuse for serving limp, crappy bread. You might as well place a sign on the table saying…”sorry folks, we give up.”

Having slogged through terrible rain and three subpar restaurants before I stumbled upon this place, I must say that a good meal in a well-run establishment is practically medicinal in its ability to restore a feeling that all is right with the world. How lucky I was to have wound up here.

Jane Stern co-authored the popular “Roadfood” guidebook series.