Located at the foot of Joralemon Street in Brooklyn Heights, River Deli was once exactly what it sounds like: a deli. Since being taken over by a Sardinian couple, it is now a neighborhood Italian joint that flies heads-and-tails above your average red sauce joint, specializing in dishes from Sardinia and beyond. I stopped by last week with a few friends to share some appetizers and pastas.
We started with the Insalata di Tonno ($8), a simple green salad with shaved carrots and cherry tomatoes, topped with Italian canned tuna. The salad was dressed with a mild vinaigrette, which let the tuna take center stage. This was one of the best salads I've had in a long time. First of all, it is enormous, and it could be eaten as a light main course. The tuna is delicious; it may be canned, but it's light years away from Bumble Bee packed in water. It's not too salty, and it doesn't have a tinny, fishy flavor.
We shared a special menu item that day, a Sardinian dish called Pani Frattau ($15) that consists of layers of tortilla-thin flatbread layered with tomato sauce and Pecorino romano cheese. It's all topped with a runny-yolked poached egg for good measure. This dish would be as appropriate at brunch as it was at dinner, but either way, it was a homey, comforting dish.
We finished dinner with a few plates of pasta. Malloredus Sardi Alla Campidanese ($10, pictured at top), pasta topped with a tangy tomato sauce and plenty of pecorino romano cheese and little balls of sausage, became the highlight of our meal. The traditional short Sardinian pasta, which the restaurant imports from the region, is astoundingly delicious and perfectly cooked, and the sausage is tasty, while not overpowering the subtle tomato sauce. If you go to River Deli, to share some dishes with friends or just for a regular dinner, don't skip this dish, one of the best plates of pasta I've had in the city. We also tried the Tagliatelle Ragu ($9.50), homemade fresh pasta topped with a rich, meaty tomato sauce perfumed with basil. Like the malloredus, the pasta itself shined here. In both of these dishes, the sauce was delicious, but the noodles themselves were just as memorable.
River Deli pulls off the Apps Only hat trick: delicious food, friendly and attentive service, and fairly low prices. River Deli doesn't have a sprawling menu overstuffed with options; it's got a small selection of seriously tasty homestyle cooking. From stellar pastas to something as humble as a tuna and mixed greens salad, everything surprised me, in a good way. For $42.50 before tax and tip (just over $14/person), three of us were able to eat a substantial dinner, and everyone left wanting to return to sample more of River Deli's wares.
The location may seem out of the way, but when you consider that the restaurant is just a short walk from Borough Hall, and there's a waterfront stroll waiting for you after you eat, I'd say that River Deli is well worth the trip.
32 Joralemon Street, Brooklyn NY 11201 (at Columbia Place; map) 718-254-9200