Before the smoking ban, it was hard to imagine a more welcoming place for a cigar smoker. Entering the upstairs maitre d' station, you'd have the choice of walking west to the dining area or east to the lounge. The latter was the ideal place to wait for a table, so as a cigar smoker I would arrive at 7 p.m. for an 8 o'clock reservation, passing the time with a corona gorda while sipping a cocktail, prepared from the attractive array of spirits standing at attention behind the handsome copper and wood bar. Like the rest of the restaurant, the brick-walled lounge offers massive windows looking out over the Hudson and onto New Jersey. My dining companions and I would sink into the couches, the smoke from our cigars rising to the exposed-beam ceiling.
The lounge gives the diner a feeling of grand, open space that's elusive in this city. First-time visitors will be drawn to the photos adoring the walls in the hallway off the lounge. New York Yankees manager Joe Torre seems to be in every one, and the two nights I dined at the restaurant were probably his only two off from the place.
The service is formal and attentive. GianLuca Rizza, a cigar lover with an easy smile and a warm attitude, had recommended a cigar from his humidor; a few vacant humidified lockers were available for rental.
Sadly, the lounge is no longer smoker-friendly, but because of its grand space F.illi Ponte can still accommodate smokers, at its outdoor tables. (The law allows for up to 25 percent of said outdoor space to be smoker-friendly.) And it's just the season to begin contemplating enjoying outdoor smoking in New York City. The restaurant may even apply for an exemption from the ban, a possibility given its space and its sales of cigars and the rental of humidor lockers.
The menu at F.illi Ponte is geared to sate, and you're likely to leave stuffed. Touching even most of the culinary bases offered here -- from antipasti to pasta to entrée to dessert -- will make your ribs ache.
I found it impossible to resist the antipasti of Italian cold cuts, and the garlicy, overbearingly rich eggplant caponata refused to let go of the tongue. The pastas were fine, but the house was most proud of its signature dish, the Angry Lobster, a crustacean plucked from the deep and cooked with a rich array of hot peppers and oil. It's flavorful, but I preferred the rack of lamb.
Ponte is a restaurant with legs. It was opened under the name Ponte by the eponymous family in 1967, and renovated and renamed F.illi Ponte in 1995. Go to enjoy space in a city without space, go to dine on a crustacean with an anger management problem, and go to enjoy a cigar in a friendly setting.