I grew up in a garlic-free household. My benevolent despot of a father couldn’t abide it, and my mother wasn’t fond enough of pungent tastes to resist. When we traveled he studiously learned the words for “without garlic,” and our voyages were punctuated with sin ajo, sans ail, and senza aglio until my adulthood. Dutiful daughter though I’ve always been, I flipped the script—garlic is the one food that I now cannot live without. I consume vast quantities, chopping larger and larger hunks into stir-fried broccoli and poaching it in balsamic vinegar to add to salads. That’s why I was so glad to happen on the Grappa Café, where I can indulge my cravings without firing up a burner.
A yearling on a fringe of Brooklyn Heights once marked by fast-food joints and hardware stores, Grappa perches across the street from two other signposts of gentrification, a multiplex cinema and a two-story Barnes & Noble. The room is warm, with burnished woods and well-spaced tables that partake comfortably of the informal chic of the New Brooklyn. The calamari appetizer ($7), which I so often use as a test of a kitchen’s basic prowess, passed muster: a pile of crisply fried rounds coated with a light tempura-like batter and accompanied by two sauces. The light, citrusy lemon basil aioli was just the thing for leisurely dipping, but lacked the full wallop of a spicy marinara rich with alternating hits of chile, black olive, tomato, and, let us not forget, garlic. It was so good that I finished it off with a spoon and determined beyond any doubt that chef Luca Caravello could handle his garlic cloves.
The mains lived up to this statement of principle. My steak was zapped up with a dense sauce of reduced red wine and mushrooms and blanketed with caramelized onions ($21). A side of broccoli rabe ($5) proved nothing short of perfect—tender not mushy, and perfumed with big pieces of pungent, golden garlic. My friend pronounced a special of pulpo atop leaves of arugula delish before moving on to a plate of linguine vongole ($15) where the sautéed clams and their traditional complement of stinking rose benefited from the addition of the heat of pepperoncini and the finesse of preserved lemon.
There’s never enough garlic, so soon I was ready for a return foray, this time with more friends who were tired of my bragging. We kvelled over the warm bread and focaccia as a patient waitress impressed us all by committing the order to memory and won my gratitude by allowing me to edit the tricolore salad down to a tasty mound of baby arugula leaves ($7). One friend decided on the vongole oreganata and declared herself ready to leave happy when the six bluepoints arrived in a suck-it-up broth of clam juice, citrus, and olive oil ($8). Her husband, following my lead, asked if the kitchen could improvise an appetizer portion of simple pasta aglio e olio. No problem—and soon we were fighting each other for tastes of a deeply satisfying version of the classic ($7).
Mains were equally dazzling: a tender lamb shank crusted with black olives ($18), a massive veal T-bone topped with autumnal wild mushrooms and sauced with a mix of vin santo and veal jus ($19.50), and a repeat of the divine steak and garlicky broccoli rabe. We ended the meal with a glass each of the eponymous brandy, in two different versions: a moscato ($8), sweet and smooth with high notes of perfume, and a merlot ($7), which was drier but still fragrant. When we walked out to confront Mr. Barnes and his partner, we were sated, smiling, and reeking.