Calabria is the toe of the Italian boot, and one of its poorest regions. To the majority of visitors, it’s the barren stretch of coastal highway that separates Sicily from the mainland. Thus it is appropriate that a Calabrian cook has set up shop near the South Street Seaport—that’s the barren stretch of Manhattan that separates the Lower East Side from Wall Street.
Though it’s hard to find in the city, we’ve had some previous hints of Calabrian cuisine in the hot-pepper-laced caciocavallo cheese at Calandra’s on Arthur Avenue, and in the fiery neck-meat ham called capocollo at Faicco’s on Bleecker Street. Clearly, Calabrians love spicy food. But apart from cured pork products, Calabrians traditionally eat little meat. In The Food of Italy, Waverly Root calls their larder “a meager one,” being “entirely based on pasta and vegetables.”
At its heart, Il Brigante is a pizzeria, and a damn good one. The rear wall is dominated by a flickering wood-burning hearth inside a limestone proscenium, where a sweating and grunting pizzaiolo is the star of his own small repertory theater. In the style of southern Italy, the 10-inch pies are intended for individual consumption. In fact, the margherita ($10) is the city’s most perfect evocation of the true Naples style (even surpassing top spots like Una Pizza
Napoletana and La Pizza Fresca). Starting with an irregular round of glove-soft dough with no yeasty taste, the margherita is dampened with plain tomato sauce and
excellent cheese, bravely wearing a pair of fragrant basil leaves on its bosom. Eat it with a knife and fork—this is no New York pie.
Nearly as good is the Calabria ($12)—adding oil-cured olives, purple onions, and slices of spicy and stinky Calabrian salami.
The same salami anchors a charcuterie platter ($14) that also features capocollo, sopressata, caciocavallo, prosciutto, and a couple of blobs of baby mozzarella amid a scattering of olives and sun-dried tomatoes. It would make a fine lunch. Though listed as a vegetable side dish, cauliflower baked in the wood-burning oven makes a perfect appetizer ($6), nicely browned on top and sluiced with cream. The southern Italian standard of charred pork sausages bedded in bright green broccoli rabe also makes for a good starter.
The pasta menu is littered with borrowings from other regions of Italy, such as meat-sauced fettuccine Bolognese (not bad) and spaghetti carbonara (a Roman invention). Choose instead the baked casserole featuring cheese and sausage ragu called fusilli Silani ($12), named after the wildwooded plateau that dominates northern Calabria. One evening, alas, it
was simply assembled and not baked in the oven. Another good pick is rigatoni Nona, a Sicilian classic inspired by a Bellini opera, featuring chunks of eggplant and ricotta salata, a salty cheese that, somewhat disturbingly, refuses to melt. The secondi menu features prosaic northern Italian fare: Milanese breaded veal cutlet, Roman saltimbocca, and Tuscan grilled steak. If you want to eat like a Calabrian, skip them.
Il Brigante (“the brigand”) is a Calabrian folk hero, a Robin Hood figure who
bedeviled the gentry and helped redistribute land among the peasants. The bearded and pointy-hatted chap is depicted on one wall relaxing on a tree stump in front of a rustic cottage. But it’s nearly impossible to make out what he’s holding upright in his lap. Is it a salami or is he just glad to see us?