Restaurant Report: Tastes of the Mediterranean

New York City can meet any food craving at any time.

For me, growing up in a household with an Italian background, that craving is often Italian. I want to walk into a restaurant and be smacked in the face with slow-cooked aromas that remind me of home. I want to read a menu that is playful and inventive with these ingredients, one that features fresh pastas, salads big enough to share, and maybe even an Italian waiter or two for good measure.

I’ve been writing a lot of restaurant reviews over the last several months, reviews that have brought me into the depths of Brooklyn where I’ve experienced the good, the very good, and even the ugly in today’s Italian restaurants (I’ll leave the ugly for another post). Beyond incredible taste and a lovely atmosphere, the following 3 restaurants also have another thing in common: just like the Italians, they cook seasonally. These restaurants are careful and thoughtful about where they source their ingredients, meaning you can feel good about what you’re putting in your body.

Here are three Italian restaurants in Brooklyn that impressed me from start to finish, from the first note of Italian hospitality to the final morsel of hand-crafted desserts.

Locanda Vini e Olii

This Clinton Hill restaurant is set in a historic building that was once a local Drug Store, serving the neighborhood for over 100 years. Locanda Vini e Olii has maintained this historic charm, restoring everything from the original floors to the wooden cabinets lining the walls. Where prescriptions and potions once lined the shelves, today there are wine bottles, sparkling large glasses, and the original wooden latter for reaching items on too-high-to-reach shelves. Part of what is so wonderful about this pharmacy-turned-restaurant is the fact that the atmosphere isn’t curated — what was here for over a century has been restored for a different purpose.

On a first visit, I took a seat in the window, perfectly positioned to watch the evening unfold around me. There was a group in the corner who I imagined to be regulars, chatting with the staff and every now and then, erupting in a burst of laughter and lightning fast Italian. There was a sommelier, sharing his knowledge about the Italian wine list, pairing glasses of wine with different dishes. And perhaps  most memorably, there were the aromas wafting out of the kitchen, arousing my appetite.

I couldn’t resist the dried Sicilian figs and gorgonzola salad, with baby lettuce, romaine, celery, walnuts, cider vinegar, and mustard. There was a beautiful simplicity in the pasta dish I devoured, a black pepper pici with roasted onions, grana padano, and tarragon. Next came another simple dish, grilled duck breast, served practically unadorned, sized to share, offering perfect morsel after expertly grilled morsel. With wine to match each course, this restaurant satisfied all my cravings for the tastes, sounds, and smells of Italy.

Details: Locanda Vini e Olii, 129 Gates Avenue, Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. C train to Clinton/Washington stop.

Broken English

First of all, I liked the name. Then Broken English in Cobble Hill made a great first impression with a friendly smile, welcoming me to the bustling dining room on a busy Friday night. Beneath the surface of mismatched vintage chairs and exposed brick, there is a distinct Italian undercurrent to the atmosphere of this Brooklyn restaurant. No one was rushing through their meals — taking the time to enjoy a drink while ordering, finishing up a funny story before ordering dessert — it was almost like how Italian family meals would be: long, lingering, and full of good company.

Then there’s the menu. Reading different menu items, I was genuinely excited: roasted butternut squash agnolotti, served with chunks of asparagus spears, and finished with shavings of almond cookie? Yes, please. With a glass of Italian wine in hand, we settled into a procession of delicious dishes. First there were the bite size meatballs, made of all natural beef, pork, veal, and ricotta, served in a light tomato sauce. These little mouthfuls were perfect alongside the arugula salad, a fresh combination of the peppery leaves along with juicy red grapes, blue cheese, and toasted pecans. Like all good Italian restaurants, it pays to arrive with a group, where you can order a variety and sample everything. A bit of agnolotti, a bite of whole wheat pappardelle with wild mushrooms — it was all simply delicious.

Entrees were just as impressive. The stand-out dish of the night was a grilled butterflied Cornish hen, marinated in rosemary, sage, red pepper flakes, and parsley. Served over roasted fingerling potatoes, the flavor of the grilled meat was allowed to shine. From enticing specials to the pile of oysters on ice you pass on the way through the door, Broken English has the type of menu that will lure you to return, when you will be struck with a dilemma: enjoy old favorites or sample new options.

Details: Broken English, 68 Bergen Street, between Smith and Court, Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. F train to Bergen Street.

Convivium Osteria

Convivium Osteria in Park Slope isn’t strictly an Italian restaurant — they serve dishes with a Mediterranean influence featuring the flavors of Italy, Spain, and Portugal. But the cooking philosophy is the same: to cook seasonally, to use the best ingredients, and to create an atmosphere that makes people want to linger with family and friends. Everything is right about the atmosphere here: walls full of hanging copper pots, rustic wooden tables, flickering tapered candles in antique holders. In a city as chaotic as New York, it is places like Convivium Osteria that make it possible to take a step back from the pace of urban life and savor a meal.

One dish that embodies the Italian spirit of simple combinations is the buffalo mozzarella, heirloom tomato, and basil salad. The impossibly creamy buffalo mozzarella was served alongside juicy heirloom tomatoes with several basil leaves, seemingly torn right from the plant, plopped on top for color and a fresh aroma. The organic baby arugula salad was lightly dressed and finished with long shavings of parmigiano: simply perfect. For an appetizer outside the box, I couldn’t get enough of the pan roasted free range quail with fresh figs and port wine reduction.

Entrees were delicious and aromatic as well. On the lighter side, the roasted red snapper over tomatoes, olives, and swiss chard was satisfying and substantial in its own way. The green apple and cinnamon ravioli with duck ragu satisfied a craving for something unusual and packed with flavor. The star of the evening was a pinenut crusted rack of lamb, served simply with roasted cauliflower and a port wine glaze. Desserts here are handmade too – if you can save any room for them.

Details: Convivium Osteria, 68 5th Avenue, between Bergen and St Marks, Park Slope, Brooklyn. Take the 2 or 3 train to Bergen Street.

Italian traditions are alive and well in New York — some would say — even too much so. If we can eat this good a few subway stops from home, we’re going to need to come up with another reason to cross the pond.

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