Arthur on Smith: Mama's Duck-Fat Popcorn
The neighborhood might be more new Manhattan than old Italian these days, but if you're looking for a chocolate pudding that has been flustered by pig's blood, airy sandwiches of fried panelle with ricotta, or hot loaves of pork-studded lard bread, you can still find them on a few delicious strips of Carroll Gardens. This makes the locale an ideal landing place for Arthur on Smith, Joe Isidori's new spot on Smith Street that pays its respects to the Bronx-Italian heritage of his food-loving family while keeping South Brooklyn's newer, trendier tastes in mind.
When it's good, it's good. Like when Isidori pairs the smooth, dancefloor funk of tonnato—that tangy, tuna-rich mayo that traditionally accompanies slices of poached veal—with whole battered-and-fried sardines instead, then adds an ever-so-gentle spank of salsa verde ($10). It's this dish of fish squared that promises Arthur on Smith won't be one of those places in Brooklyn that gets away with mediocre food just because the locals can't be bothered to leave their block for dinner. An expertly cooked duck breast echoes this sentiment, as does a side of tomatoes—juicy chunks of yellow and red heirlooms—in aged balsamic vinegar and olive oil, topped with sheep's-milk ricotta ($8). A butterscotch budino with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a handful of salty duck-fat popcorn will disappear before the ice cream may even consider melting ($8).
But there are dishes that argue with those sardines. The chicken-liver mousse ($10), instead of spreading gorgeously like softened butter, drips like barn sludge. What a shame, when the little teacup comes crowned with some of the best things you could possibly crown it with: threads of fried lemon rind, almonds, and soft, dry cherries. The ricotta gnocchi are big, made with potato, and topped with scoops of ricotta ($16). These tough dumplings resist your fork as if they know their sad fate is to be shoved into your piehole and then immediately forgotten. A nest of semolina tagliatelle hides tight curls of overcooked Gulf shrimp ($18) and recently came to the table cold, the scanty cream sauce stiffening on its too-fat noodles. Even the heartiest of home cooking involves care and finesse and attention to the details. The dishes that miss at Arthur on Smith don't appear to be assembled by a Michelin-starred chef, but rather by a worn-out grandmother who wants nothing more than to sit the fuck down with a glass of Scotch, if only we'd stop asking her to make us that gnocchi in pork ragu.
This being a neighborhood restaurant, if you're by the paned-glass windows, you shouldn't be surprised to see a young, sleep-deprived father striding by with a baby on his chest, a dog walker leading a mixed pack of expensive, hypoallergenic breeds and rescued mutts on a stroll, or, mistaking the restaurant's dining room for someone's sleek apartment, a delivery guy kickstanding his bike to peer in. Occasionally, a cook might appear with a pair of scissors to dramatically snip some marjoram from one of the window's boxes of herbs and then scuttle back into the kitchen.
Service varies vastly between servers—with one waiter stuck in that funny habit of anxiously repeating everything back to you. But everyone means well and is happy to bring out tastes of the wine on tap from Long Island or suggest coursing the food out Italian-style if you order enough of it. Local farms are well-represented on the menu, and a wonderfully hearty bread service, complete with honey-drowned butter and an obscenely large pickle, reminds us that Isidori mastered the theater of Las Vegas restaurants before coming to woo us here in New York.
There's a neat, press-packaged backstory for every restaurant these days, isn't there? And Arthur on Smith comes with a couple of undeniably good ones. Isidori's father and grandmother also worked as chefs. After years of corporate cheffing, opening restaurants across the country for Donald Trump, Isidori Jr. would now prefer to share his family's professional take on Italian home cooking in a small space—a lovely idea. This is also his second collaboration with the restaurateur Bruce Buschel of Southfork Kitchen, the seasonal restaurant on the Hamptons end of this island. Although Buschel is just one of many investors in Arthur on Smith, he has blogged extensively about Isidori and the restaurant business, and you can read all about it on The New York Times website if you like. Stories are nice and so are family recipes passed down like heirlooms. But to roll the pasta a bit thinner and set the chicken-liver mousse, neither is required.
For more restaurant coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road,at voicefoodblog.com. Follow us on Twitter @ForkintheRoadVV.
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