It’s the total opposite of a best-kept secret. Massapequans are very loud and proud about All American Drive-In burger joint which reigns supreme on Merrick Road in Massapequa. It’s a South Shore icon, family owned and operated since 1963 and if you haven’t been there yet, the summer is the best time to get in line and try what are arguably the best fast food burgers on Long Island.
Philip and William Vultaggio were the sons of Italian immigrants who grew up in Amityville in the 40s. As businessmen, they invested in real estate in New York and Florida. “They saw the uprising of the fast food giants and they saw an opportunity,” says Philip’s grandson, Rich Vultaggio, who now runs the business with his cousins, Jason and Phil. For starters, in 1953 the Vultaggio brothers set up a Carvel franchise on the southeast corner of Merrick and Hicksville Roads (today it is Marshall’s Ice Cream Bar—another Vultaggio-owned independent enterprise). Ten years later, they opened All American right next door.
No incursions of fast food chains or drive-thrus have ever been able to take it down. The current blended, bulked up, dressed up, piled up burger trend can’t touch it either. Why? Because All American has not changed the classic great product it offers: fresh all beef patties delivered daily from a real butcher, cooked with a sprinkle of raw onion and dressed with a pickle and a slice of American cheddar; the potatoes, peeled, sliced, and fried in store every day; thick Old School milkshakes in vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry; everything made to order as you wait.
“We differentiate from the big name companies because we have just one store,” says Rich Vultaggio. “We use local companies: Mathew’s Prime Meats [in West Babylon] makes our burgers fresh every morning and they are delivered fresh, never frozen, 100 percent beef . . . For the fries we get potatoes, peel and dice them daily. It is extremely labor intensive, but it’s necessary. We are constantly cooking burgers to order. That’s one of the biggest things; other companies are cooking and holding. Not us. We cook as needed.”
The menu is limited: burgers, hot dogs, knishes, fish filets, fries, onion rings, shakes. Aside from the butterfly shrimp added a few years ago, not much has changed in 56 years. And that’s how customers like it.
Whenever you drive by (and why are you driving by? Stop in and pick up some food!) the lengthy counter is five deep with people from all over the island. You wait your turn in the glass foyer area (there is only limited seating and it is outdoors) give your order to one of the local kids working behind the counter, pay (cash only) and get your number. Then you wait (usually not longer than five minutes), until they call your number. You grab your bag and go, reaching in for french fries as you drive away.
If I sound a bit impassioned it’s because I am one of those Massapequans who grew up on All American. As kids it was a post soccer game treat, or a Friday night free from cooking for working parents. As teenagers it was the refueling stop on the way home from biking to and from Jones Beach (the trailhead is a short distance away at Cedar Creek Park in Seaford). In the party years, it provided ballast before a night out, or hangover helper the day after. It’s the first stop on the nostalgia tour for folks who have moved away and are home for a visit. And these days it’s me taking the kids for burgers after a game or when I don’t feel like cooking. All American fits every stage of the life cycle in these parts. Ask Jerry Seinfeld, the Baldwin brothers, or the Stray Cats, all local boys who have been spotted there at one time or another.
And in case you were wondering, the Vultaggio family looks to keep on. Rich’s son, 14-year-old Richard Jr., just started working at the counter. “The fourth generation is going to start now,” says his dad. Massapequa sighs in relief.
All American Hamburger Drive In is located at 4286 Merrick Road in Massapequa.