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Work of Astoria biz a neighborhood affair

James (r.) and Elena Palminteri stand in front of a community message board in their restaurant. Photo by Joe Anuta
TimesLedger Newspapers

The owners of an Astoria café called The Lil Kitchen that Could wanted their restaurant to have the atmosphere of their home — and they are there so often that is exactly what happened.

“We want you to feel like you are coming into the kitchen of our house,” said James Palminteri, who owns the recently opened restaurant with his wife Elena.

Beginning at 6 a.m. each weekday, Palminteri can often be found standing outside the eatery, at 24-01 29th St., wearing vibrant, multicolored chef pants or whipping up coffee and breakfast for sleepy straphangers who stop by on their way to the nearby N train.

The quaint café is run entirely by the husband-and-wife team. The only other immediate family member in the shop is their pet fish Andrew, but they offer a sense of family to all of Astoria.

The café serves as a hang-out for neighbors, a gallery for local artists and a small library for commuters dreading a long train ride.

Palminteri and his wife are dog lovers, and have a gallery on their Facebook page called the Lil Kitchen Dog Club, where friends and neighbors can post pictures of their pooches.

And when the dogs come to visit, they do not have to leave hungry.

Palminteri has a menu just for canines, and for $5 will whip up one of four dishes so owners will not have to dine alone.

“We are huge dog lovers,” he said. “Basically, every dog in the neighborhood comes by to say hi and to get a bone.”

In keeping with the community feel of the restaurant, many of their ingredients are from the neighborhood: bread from Rose and Joe’s Italian Bakery, bagels from Astoria’s Finest Bagels and meat from K and T Meats.

Even their produce comes from upstate New York farms.

“We use mostly local ingredients,” Palminteri said.

The atmosphere is relaxed, but Palminteri is completely serious when it comes to the food.

The kitchen opens from 6 a.m. to noon, when Palminteri serves classics like bacon, egg and cheese, but also concoctions of his own design like Eggs Napoleon. He and his wife close for a siesta around noon, and then reopen from 5 p.m. to midnight.

If they wanted, residents could show up in their pajamas, Palminteri said, but could get strip steak, meatballs, shrimp scampi or sausage and peppers without all the pomp of a fine-dining restaurant.

Palminteri has wanted to own his own restaurant since working as a dish washer at a pizzeria in Garden City, L.I.

He slowly worked his way up the food-service chain. He was a valet driver who did not even have a license, a cook, a bar back and then bartender. He eventually began managing big-name eateries like the now-defunct Tavern on the Green, which was in Manhattan.

He has not gone to cooking school, but still takes pride in his unique take on classic cuisines.

“I’m not a culinary school guy,” he said. “I’m a school-of-hard-knocks guy.”

The Lil Kitchen also serves several desserts, and many reflect Palminteri’s admitted addition to chocolate.

Some items are not exactly on the menu. For the chef’s salad, you just show up and tell Palminteri what you like and he will make it right there.

“That’s about as individual as you can get,” Palminteri said.

Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at januta@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.

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