Eschewing the obvious Park Slope, Cobble Hill, or Fort Greene locations, Locanda Vini & Olii hopscotched across the Brooklyn map to an abandoned pharmacy in a corner of Clinton Hill near the Bed-Stuy border. A "locanda" is a type of Italian country restaurant a little fancier than an osteria, and as I emerged from the C train at the Clinton-Washington stop, unexpectedly finding stately trees and handsome brownstones gilded by a brilliant sunset, I did indeed find myself in a rural mood.
Restaurant has melded gracefully with pharmacy in a way that creates a space where you'd be happy to wait for your prescription. Covered with butcher paper, the tables are well spaced, and the wooden apothecary shelves stocked with doodads that run from colorful Venetian blown glass to brown chemical bottles with peeling labels. The mood is relaxed, partly because no dance beat thumps in the background, and the restaurant's wood surfaces absorb noise. The only downer is the hard chairs, which might, after you've sat for a couple of hours, find you ransacking the drawers for Percodan.
The main menu is organized into a whopping nine sections, rather than the standard three, reflecting greater culinary ambitions than your usual Village trattoria. Many of the combinations seem uselessly wild, until you realize that the prototypes can be found in Manhattan's most adventuresome Italian restaurants, like Lupa, Esca, Pepolino, and Via Emilia. Entire sections are devoted to house-cured olives, Italian cheeses, salads, individual appetizers, and ganged-up platters intended for sharing, littered with unfamiliar Italian terms in quotes. If the food weren't so good, the menu would seem like a snow job.
Starters include a seafood charcuterie platter ($12) of octopus soppressata and tuna salami. Though the "salami" looks more like fish mousse, it goes well on the Tuscan-style saltless bread. Made for the restaurant by a neighborhood bakery, this authentic detailseen nowhere else in townpropels several other successful dishes. Reduced to crumbs, it's used with tomatoes, cucumbers, and purple onions in a tart panzanella ($7). Moistened with sweet tomato sauce, the same crumbs become pappa al pomodoro, a rustic porridge usually served to children. As if it weren't tasty enough, the waiter pours on fruity olive oil.
Panzanella notwithstanding, salads are the most perplexing part of the menu, but you can easily ignore them. Though a geometric composition of frisée, romaine, kiwi, grapefruit, and poppy seeds almost works, the toss of lettuce, celery, avocado, and dried cranberry clearly doesn't. Pastas are refreshingly light, and served in small enough portions so you can do the classic antipasta-secondo-main progression. My favorite is eggplant ravioli ($9.75)irregularly shaped, stuffed with a mild vegetable purée, and served in an oily dice of fresh tomatoes. My least favorite is chive maltagliatipale vegetable-flecked noodles with a cottony texture reminiscent of a baby's diaper. An exception to the lightness rule, and probably the most interesting pasta on the menu, is lasagnette ($9.50), an unbaked lasagna made by layering chestnut-flour noodles above and below a filling of flavored chickpeas and luganega, a long sweet Lombardy sausage.
With so much action among the antipasti and pasti, it's no surprise that the main courses are dull by comparison, including the usual chicken roasted under a brick ($12.50), a failed seafood stew called guazzetto, and a fish in parchment that derives little flavor from the endive and mint steamed along with it, yet tastes fine anyway. But the best entrée is astonishingly good, a Piedmontese steak "tagliata" (which just means "sliced"). Planks of pink charred meat standing like dominoes around a pile of arugulajust what the doctor ordered.
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