Rucola: Brooklyn’s Sweetest Bitter Green
On a Sunday last spring, as Sebastian and I walked down Bond Street from our local Farmer’s Market in The Commons on Atlantic Avenue, we noticed that the building on the corner of Dean and Bond had suddenly come alive. Plants were hanging on the iron-barred façade and on the sidewalk rough-hewn tables held potted geraniums and fresh finds from local farms and forests.
Ramps. They were giving away ramps. Like, for free. Free, freshly foraged ramps!
A few days later, I arrived home from work to find our friend the artist Hugo Guinness, sitting on our sofa smoking. He lives in our neighborhood too, and coming home to find a friend and neighbor sitting on your sofa is a delight that doesn’t happen often enough, especially in New York. At any rate, there was Hugo, talking to Sebastian about the restaurant, Rucola, opening on the corner and how they were giving away ramps.
“Elliott and I are hoping it will be our local spot,” Hugo said in his slithery voice, referring to his wife the exquisite artist Elliott Puckette. I agreed it might be a perfect hangout for us, but only, of course, if the food proved itself as tasty as the plant-strewn façade was inviting.
Our first evening at Rucola, we had a half hour wait at the beautiful, albeit cramped, marble bar before being seated at the long communal table running the length of the room. From the two entrées on the succinct first menu, Sebastian chose the Veal Milanese with a pickled ramp salad on top; he found it earth-shattering. He said that it was the best Milanese he’d ever had, and for someone who claims to be an optimist but is rarely satisfied with anything, a statement such as this boded very well for Rucola becoming our new clubhouse.
Alas, we were not the only two locals with this idea. On many a May evening we would stroll by, hoping to simply glide in to a waiting table, but it was not so. Julian Brizzi—who owns the restaurant with his cousin Henry Moynahan Rich—would be there at the entrance, calling me “dear” and politely telling us it would be 30 minutes…or maybe 45. My sigh was barely audible beneath the reverberations of my grumbling belly; however, my altruistic side reveled in the fact that this little restaurant that gave away ramps and served heavenly pastas was doing so well. What could we do but shore up a corner of the bar, firmly clench our Rosé Rickys and wait our turn?
It’s a small wonder that locals and not-so locals were coming in droves considering what chef Joe Pasqualetto does with the restaurant’s namesake: a simple arugula accented with shaved radish and a celery seed vinaigrette so well balanced and subtle that it’s almost unrecognizable in the face of all those balsamic-soaked hot house numbers out there. The greens are sharp and pungent so the dressing doesn’t have to be. Finely grated Parmesan clings delicately to the leaves. It’s delightful.
The Branzino Crudo, drizzled in Ligurian olive oil and deftly sprinkled with finely-diced pickled green tomato, Jalapeño, toasted sunflower seeds, and basil, is—as my dinner partner said—“an explosion.” She meant it in the best possible way, in the manner that symphonies, orgasms, and meteor showers are explosive. (I don’t know what I will do when I return and it is no longer on the ever-changing seasonal menu.) The masterfully chosen accompaniments create a constellation of color on a small-scale Alabaster background of tender raw Branzino. I got to see this solar system on my plate and eat it for $11. That is a feat.
The two “housemade” pastas are awe-inspiring. The Rigatoni bathed in a rosemary-rich, creamy Bolognese with shaved nutmeg on top is one of the best pastas I’ve ever eaten. In keeping with the local thrust of the restaurant, the nutmeg comes from the Brooklyn garden of a neighbor, Olga, as does the mint that infused some of Rucola’s summer cocktails. As a vegetarian option, the Strozzapreti with green garlic pesto, zucchini and grana padano cheese is wonderful, but I must urge vegetarians to convert to carnivores in honor of the Rigatoni. Toe-curling good.
The Long Island Duck Breast roasted and cut into half-inch slices was exquisitely cooked, its skin crisp and decadent and magenta gamey center still oozing juices. Perfectly paired with roasted turnips, Brussels sprouts (also available as a side) and halved figs, the flavors are magnificently balanced and well conceived as a whole. This entrée is a tour de force.
The meat of the Whole Roasted Brook Trout was flawlessly cooked, and incredibly flavorful as a result of the lemon, herbs and rich olive accoutrements, but the skin was a bit lank and lacked that appetizing, albeit fatty, crispiness that makes one want to devour fish skin. The striped bass, tried on another visit, was also flavorful but here again the skin was slack. Both fish, however, are complemented by the Escarole and White Bean side, which was sumptuous, with a deep richness that suggested the presence of white wine. In fact, this body results from excellent vegetable stock and Parmesan cheese.
Rucola contributes to Boerum Hill what Café Cluny and Balthazar bring (lastingly) to the West Village and SoHo: a corner café during the day and bistro in the evenings, which locals will frequent in the morning to drink their (Stumptown!!) coffee while they read their paper; at lunch for a delicious sandwich; and then often for dinner to revisit favorite menu items. The restaurant caters to all those lost souls of Carroll Gardens, whose stomachs are battered by that terrible misnomer “Restaurant Row.” Far from the stolid pizzas and “ConFusion Cuisine” of Smith Street, here the emphasis is on the seasons, the neighbors, and above all, the food, which has the familiarity and unpretentiousness of what one makes at home—or rather, wishes one could make
Owners Henry Moynahan Rich and Julian Brizzi are so committed to local, seasonal fare that they’ve created a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program for Rucola’s neighborhood. This Batch gives Rucola’s Boerum Hill neighbors the chance to emulate its seasonal and local initiative by sending a weekly email informing what is available and fresh from local farmers, the same ones, in fact, who supply Rucola. This efficient system allows for orders that are size appropriate for recipients, and is another way of uniting the community through food.
It’s such a relief to finally have somewhere in Boerum Hill—other than my own table—to feel deliciously like home.
190 Dean St (corner of Bond St)
Brooklyn, NY, 11217
Phone: 718 576 3209
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