My pal Michael grew up in Bensonhurst in an Italian American family, so it wasn’t hard to predict what he’d order. The menu called it “handcut Italian fennel sausage” ($16), but what the hell did “handcut” mean in this context? We sat perched on the edge of our brown leather banquette, surveying the cavernous red room propped up with gold columns that glinted in the flickering candlelight. The room had once been Oro Bleu, a decent Italian restaurant that catered, during lunchtime at least, to expense accounters from the advertising agencies that have made Hudson Street their home. But Oro Bleu was often empty at night, and we wondered if Dani was destined to suffer the same fate.
Dani (pronounced “Donny”) is also the latest attempt to mount an upscale Sicilian restaurant downtown. This time, there’s an increased emphasis on North African influences, as evidenced by a cod tajine ($21). Arriving in the traditional clay vessel, it features a big white chunk of fish resting on a platform of couscous and greens, planted in a tomato sauce sweetened and soured with raisins, lemons, and capers. The best capers in the world, it should be noted, hail from the tiny island of Pantelleria, which lies in the 90-mile gulf between Sicily and Tunisia. The entrée is generous and well prepared, but I missed the cumin kick one expects from a Moroccan tajine.
More specifically Sicilian is bucatini con sarde ($16), a pasta featured at the city’s ancient focaccerias like Joe’s of Avenue U. There the pungent and gritty sauce of sardines, fennel, and raisins comes from a can, and its admirers wouldn’t have it any other way. I shifted nervously on the banquette, wondering how the bucatini would be spruced up for a fine-dining venue. The thick spaghetti-like noodles came gobbed with a sauce in which the fish and fennel notes had been melded and submerged; in fact, finding and identifying a piece of sardine proved a challenge. Nevertheless, it was the kind of pasta where a single tentative bite leads to another and another.
Cavatelli with beef cheeks and wild mushrooms ($18) proved better, mellow and greasy, though I also enjoyed the penne rigate, which was tossed with cauliflower and chile flakes, with a very Sicilian topping of toasted bread crumbs, which, one suspects, islanders use when there’s no parmigiano in the larder. For vegetarians, there are small round raviolis filled with butternut squash in a tart pistachio sauce. It does Sicily proud that the pastas are the best things on Dani’s menu.
Despite the proximity of Joe’s Dairy, Dani goes the extra mile to make its own ricotta ($9), and it leads off the appetizer menu. Decorated with grated almonds and wildflower honey, the fresh cheese is supremely fluffy. “This would make a great dessert,” Michael exclaimed. Seagoing creatures predominate among the starters, the best of which is a version of fried calamari in a crust of chickpea flour. There are also house-cured sardines, and a carpaccio of tuna topped with blood orange segments, matching the restaurant’s color scheme.
But what about the hand-cut sausages? A pair arrived mounted on the Sicilian favorite broccoli rabe. Carved into a perfect double helix, the two sausage twined around each other like serpents. Michael dug into them like a trencherman, and the Brooklyn Italian boy pronounced them excellent.