We sat stunned in the lovely back garden of Baci & Abbracci, our gaze directed at the cloudless sky. Up above wheeled hundreds of fawn-gray doves in concentric circles, their wings glinting white as they turned toward the sun. A faint flapping could be heard as they resolved themselves into three vortices, which disappeared one by one over the line of rooftops. Seeing us gaping, the waiter came over to explain, “A guy on the next block keeps birds on his roof, and he likes to put on a show around sunset.”
Williamsburg’s Grand Street is gradually developing as a dining destination, and Baci & Abbracci (“Kisses and Hugs”) is proving to be its flagship. In addition to the garden—which won’t be of much use come late October—the restaurant offers a spare and diffusely lit interior of bare brick and a menu with a bravura combination of wood-oven pizzas, solid but predictable apps, quirky and amazing pastas, and voluminous secondi. The thin-crust pizzas cost around $13 each, and one is enough for two people if each also orders an appetizer. With the same name as the restaurant, the signature pie is a char-dappled wonder of creamy mozzarella, sweet caramelized onions, and pancetta, which, rather than being cut up into unsatisfying slivers, is thrown in huge greasy gobs onto the pie. The union of sweet and salty flavors is sublime.
If a demonstration of the pasta’s quirkiness is needed, just turn to the gnocchi. In America, these gnurled bits of nourishment are invariably made with potatoes, but in Italy, one can find versions made with bread crumbs or semolina. At Baci & Abbracci, they’re fabricated from polenta in gnochetti con ragu di coniglio ($13), giving them a coarse texture that picks up sauce and cheese like dirt on a rolling snowball. The sauce, too, is distinguished: a profuse inundation of rabbit ragu shotgunned with black peppercorns. Even stranger is the gnocchi that leads off the menu of fresh pasta (there’s a dried-pasta menu as well, which you can safely ignore). Violette di parma ($12) is named after a fusty perfume manufactured in Parma, a city in Emilia-Romagna associated with Verdi and Proust. These semolina globules (the gnocchi, not Verdi and Proust), dyed deep red with beets, swim in a sauce of cheese and wild arugula, which imparts a faintly bitter taste like the sting of faded love.
Listen to the pasta specials when the waiter recites them. One evening we enjoyed homemade ravioli stuffed with pumpkin. Happy Halloween! Should your meal progress that far, a recommended secondi is stracotto di maiale ($16). Normally, this term designates a pork roast draped with sausages. At Baci & Abbracci, it’s a thick pork chop braised in a fragrant rosemary sauce and sided with roasted potatoes. Not as exciting as the pastas, other secondi include veal scallops Milanese, chicken sautéed with sausages, and the not-very-Italian trout almondine.
Inevitably it took a few visits to ferret out the best dishes on the lengthy menu. Making some choices we’d previously avoided, we ordered the calzone ($14) on our final visit. It turned out to be a massive flop of charred yeasty dough enfolding salami, ricotta, and tons of diced mozzarella. And if you’ve never tasted a calzone made with top-quality cheese, you’re in for a treat.