C Train to Tuscany: Locanda Vini e Olii in Clinton Hill
Gates Avenue and Cambridge Place cross a few blocks north of Atlantic Avenue in Clinton Hill. You're likely to miss Locanda Vini e Olii on the northeast corner there. Not because it blends in with the brownstones that surround it, but because the only signage out front reads "Lewis Drug Store." There's nothing to suggest the Tuscan-inspired fare Michele Baldacci cooks inside, and while the menu is not Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man, its roots are just as classic.
The space dates back to the late 19th Century and much of the interior sings of the same era. Hidden behind old glass encased in worn wood are relics of a time when apothecaries and radium healed whatever ailed you. The only signs of modern times now are the Indie soundtrack and numbers like 2004 and 1999 dotting the wine list; typed out on butcher paper and wrapped around empty bottles. It's a fun, if dizzying, way to navigate Rocco Spagnardi's concise, competitively priced selection that honors some of Italy's lesser-explored varietals.
Elvio Cogno's Nascetta is a prime example. It's a lush, round white, with the body of Chenin blanc and the sharp acidity of Alsace Riesling. The wine and Venetian Sardines in Saor ($12) riff off each other like Abbott and Costello. Saor, a velvety white wine, oil, and vinegar solution, typically has raisins. Baldacci's does not. The result is more sour and less sweet, and nascetta's steely minerality is an excellent counterpart.
For a blustery, winter evening, Ribollita ($8.50) is the choice companion. It's a vegetable mash that borrows from Tuscany's peasant origins. Day-old bread is cooked with stock, carrots, cabbage, kale, squash, and zucchini to absorb any spare liquid. Cannellini beans, the foundation of Tuscany's pantry, are placed atop and the whole thing, which is hit with a few cracks of black pepper. The result is a satisfying, definitely rib-sticking sort of stew.
Baldacci's pastas are not to be missed. A native of Florence, he replaces simpler pasta shapes on the menu with homemade cuts like maltagliati and pici. There are tortelli instead of ravioli, and they're similar, but that's what the pasta's called in Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna, and Tuscany. Baldacci's Potato, Pancetta, and Rosemary Tortelli ($15) rely on wild boar ragu to dress them. Potato, whipped to light and airy, takes on a whisper of pancetta's salt and the rich ragu adds feedback; each bite reminds you of the affinity rosemary and boar have for one another. It's a dish fit for hunters, but speaks to anyone coming in from the cold.
Piedmontese Beef makes a few cameos at Vini e Olii. As an entrée, it's grilled to a bright medium rare and sliced as "Tagliata" ($26.50) suggests on the menu. The breed of steer, native to Italy's Piedmont region, is leaner but produces more tender cuts of beef. Salt crystals on top retain their crunch while arugula, soaking in the steak's juices, wilts ever so slightly but keeps its peppery spice.
There were no empty seats the night my guest and I took up two of them. A look around as the check came revealed people paying attention to one another. There were no phones out, smart or otherwise. Conversation, in English among the patrons and Italian among the staff, was persistent and enthusiastic. Lulls in chatter happened only after heavy forks visited plates of food, the contents of which evoking Tuscan countryside. A meal at Locanda Vini e Olii won't quite take you there, but a taste costs one twelfth the price, including subway fare.
About the Author: Craig Cavallo is a writer with an addiction to New York City's food and drink. Learn more about his problem at digestny.com.