Note: First Looks give previews of new dishes, drinks, and menus we're curious about. Since they are arranged photo shoots and interviews with restaurants, we do not make critical evaluations or recommendations.
Saul Bolton opened Red Gravy with the desire to pay homage to the Italian-American experience. The menu is inspired by recipes and traditions that immigrants brought from the shores of Southern Italy to the blocks of Southern Brooklyn; changes were made only to reflect the different ingredients available in their new homes.
Red Gravy resides on a decidedly commercial stretch of Atlantic avenue, but aims to serve the surrounding residential neighborhoods: Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill, and Boerum Hill.
As is custom with a Bolton restaurant, the menu is seasonal, but also changes at the whim of the chef. Frequent diners can expect new additions to the menu on a weekly or even daily basis. The constant, however, is the influence of Southern Italian cuisine. Many of the pastas are made in house, extruded and dried in the basement of the restaurant. The Calamarata ($25) features a squid ink pasta, cut to resemble a ring of calamari, served with shrimp that has been slowly cooked in a sauce of nduja (a pâté-like pork sausage, cured in Calabrian chilies) and bergamot citrus juice. The dish is finished with flecks of mint and bread crumbs.
Seafood has a strong presence on the menu, as does chili pepper and citrus. The tuna crudo (market price) is served over a salad of carrots tossed in orange juice, olive oil, and Calabrian chili, along with carrot purée, crushed pistachios, and flecks of mint. A grilled octopus ($15) rests over a purée of Castelvetrano olives and sautéed escarole then finished with Salmoriglio.
Chef de Cuisine Ayesha J. Nurdjaja, formerly of a Voce, explained that while the regular menu was distinctly Southern Italian, the piatto del giorno—dish of the day—is their opportunity to pay homage to classic Italian-American fare. I stopped in on Wednesday, the only day they serve pasta and meatballs ($17). Tuesday was sausage and peppers, Thursday would be roasted chicken. The daily specials are all immediately recognizable, but general enough in description to allow the chef to change the preparation from week to week.
Sunday's piatto del giorno is a three-course dinner ($45) that pays tribute to the sit down family meal that many Italian Americans were required to make time for in their busy work weeks. Red Gravy's rendition starts with olives and arancini, and is followed by a salad of delicate Italian greens, pickled onions, and barely candied walnuts. The meal is highlighted by the eponymous red gravy: sausage, meatballs, lamb ribs, and a braciole of beef short ribs braised in tomato sauce and red wine. The finished sauce is served with one of their housemade pastas, with the tender cuts of meat on the side.
Chef Nurdjaja explains, "Our hope and belief is that the neighborhood and community around us recognizes that we will not sacrifice quality for value. Our menu will be provocative yet approachable... We want our neighbors to be as excited about our presence here as we are."