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Saul Bolton's Red Gravy Hits Atlantic Avenue

A new meatball-slinging Italian joint

Restaurants are like family—the closer they are to us, the quicker we are to forgive them their faults—which is why neighborhood restaurants can often get away with a certain level of coarseness and inconsistency. Red Gravy is that rare one where the food is good even if you don't live around the corner.

Since opening a few months ago on Atlantic Avenue, Red Gravy has been packed with families from nearby Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill—a kid in a backward baseball cap mortified by every word out of his parents' mouths; a group of young dads drinking beers on a boys' night out, getting hot and bothered over a new Wii release; and couples sharing antipasti at the roomy bar, pretending they aren't thrilled to see half the cast of Arrested Development standing awkwardly at the entrance, waiting for a table.

A note on the menu assures you that the pasta is "house-extruded whenever possible," which seems a weirdly industrial term for the beautiful handmade things chef Ayesha Nurdjaja turns out. Nurdjaja spent the last three years as Missy Robbins's executive sous chef at A Voce, and she has the pasta chops to show for it. Her calamarata's ($25) wide ink-stained rings arrive in a slick of dark, viciously spicy tomato sauce deepened by nduja, the cured porky spread from Calabria. The dish is a hot, fatty delight, with tiny, sweet shrimp tucked into its folds, and a sprinkling of crisp olive-oil-fried crumbs to make things interesting. Thick ruffles of reginetti ($19), made with semolina and chestnut flour, are layered in a nuanced sauce of braised rabbit meat. A bowl of bucatini, served with melting dollops of sea urchin and slices of pickled cherry-bomb peppers ($29), looks very small and plain for its price tag, but taste it and you'll find it's an undeniably gorgeous dish, swimming in salty butter and white wine, delicately sweet with basil.

Restaurateur Saul Bolton was a pioneer of serious dining in Brooklyn. He opened his first restaurant, Saul, back in 1999 on nearby Smith Street, and set such high standards there that he earned the borough one of its first Michelin stars when the guide finally came to New York. From there Bolton opened The Vanderbilt near Prospect Park, and launched wholesale sausage company Brooklyn Bangers. His new spot is not as serious as Saul—there are no white tablecloths here, no tasting menus—but Red Gravy stands out with bright, brainy Italian food. The kitchen does especially well with the chiles, seafood, and breadcrumb-paved dishes of the south, and when it celebrates Italian-American favorites such as spaghetti and meatballs, or Sunday gravy.

But it's not all pasta: Rabbit appears again—the bones replaced with a dark, delicious mousse of the animal's offal in a pretty roulade, roasted maybe a minute or two too long—on a bed of fine lentils and chard ($26). A recent salad special of fried smelts and arugula was lovely, the fish cooked whole, their bones as soft as their flesh, and their tiny eyes just visible through a veil of crisp batter. Branzino ($27), on a bright smear of beet puree, hid little smoked beets and their garlicky greens.

When it came to dessert, a goat-milk cheesecake, topped with a rough-textured mash of sweet olives and cherries, did its duty, easing us gently from savory to sweet, but Red Gravy, like every other good restaurant without one, needs a dedicated pastry chef if it wants to be taken seriously. And service can be clumsy. On a recent evening, our server asked if we'd like our main courses brought out when they were ready, though everyone was still eating their pasta dishes with gusto. This felt a touch passive-aggressive—if we said no, would the dishes suffer as they waited? Red Gravy's prices demand more expert service.

Sure, you don't need to know that this is Nurdjaja's grandmother's excellent meatball recipe—the ground veal, beef, and pork softened with a fine dice of fennel confit, onion, and garlic—to enjoy the hell out of them, whether they're piled on fresh pasta or coddled in soft polenta. But when asked about spaghetti and meatballs, a Wednesday-night special, one server made the dish sound so absurdly flat that he actually discouraged my table from ordering it. "It's meatballs that we make. On pasta. With tomato sauce." Luckily for us, we decided to get them anyway.

trao@villagevoice.com

 
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