Serious Eats: New York
Date Night: Celestino in Bedford-Stuyvesant
When confronted with an antique diving suit made from canvas speared to a wall, its matching boots hanging above you, the owner's name still visible in ink, you can reasonably only ask one question: were people in olden times insane? Imagine putting such a thing on, then topping it with a metal helmet, and then being lowered into the dark depths of the sea. To do so must have required a tremendous amount of courage, a genuine desire to explore, or perhaps just a real hunger for just-caught fish.
These days it's easier to get your fill of fish at Celestino, a relatively new, cash-only Mediterranean restaurant in Bed-Stuy. In January 2012, Saraghina's co-owner Massimiliano Nanni left that popular pizza joint to open Celestino down the street, in part because he wanted to bring fresh oysters to the neighborhood, where he's lived for several years. His artist-wife, Paola Citterio, decorated the space, as she did at Saraghina, with reclaimed metals and whitewashed walls. Here, though, you also get fishing rods, nets, scales, and menus printed on thinly lined notebook paper. The food arrives at the expeditor's station via dumbwaiter.
Eating our first appetizer, tomato stuffed with crabmeat ($13), mimicked the act of diving. Much as you never quite know what you'll get as you head down into the ocean, we never quite knew how much crabmeat we'd get with each bite. But what we did get, we liked, and we appreciated the herb-flecked bread crumbs when those were what our fork brought up.
The caprese salad ($13) comprised big, thick wheels of mozzarella, eggplant, and tomato. Veins of pesto and flecks of pepper connected the disparate pieces, enlivening each. There were degrees of coolness here, as with a room whose air conditioner doesn't chill every square inch equally. Icy tomato followed the warm smoky mash of eggplant, the cheese made squishier when trailed through the oil and garlic.
The crepe with fish ragù and onions ($15) arrived immersed in tomato sauce. One bite revealed lasagna-like layers, said sauce slightly acidic and boasting a lone bay leaf. Two bites introduced us to the crepe, as airy and spongy as Ethiopian injera, minus the sourness. Three bites brought us into the flaky white fish, mixed with onions and herbs but nevertheless quite unassuming, the shy guest who doesn't add much to the party but whom you like having around nonetheless.
Nearly every main course on the regular menu at Celestino comes from the sea, but daily specials throw a lifeline to landlubbers. Of the two meats in the spiedino with baked potatoes ($14), the sausage was superior, peppery, and tiptoeing just to the correct side of the juicy/greasy divide. The hunks of pork loin were fine, but no match for the sausage.
"But oh! shipmates! on the starboard hand of every woe, there is a sure delight; and higher the top of that delight, than the bottom of the woe is deep," wrote Melville in Moby-Dick. As high as Celestino soars, it nevertheless manifests one major woe: the seating. Woe to the bottom that spends too long on the metal school chairs, still more woe to the lower back that tries to adjust to the great metal bar atop the bench that lines one wall.
Celestino begs for puns: the food will make you feel nautically naughty, the atmosphere is perfect for naval gazing. The very designed space can sometimes feel self-serious (check out that old-school dumbbell and rope-flush toilet in the bathroom), just bordering on overkill. While not quite heaven, with the windows open onto Halsey Street, the seats filling up, a baby gurgling in the corner, and quite fine food in our bellies, Celestino made for a swashbuckling time. It's best for: a date with your favorite merman or -maid.
562 Halsey Street, Brooklyn NY 11233 (map)
About the authors: Jessica Allen and Garrett Ziegler have been eating out together since 2002 and writing We Heart New York since 2006.