Sometimes it seems as if all the juice has run out of the restaurant industry. Take Anella. It recently sailed into northwestern Greenpoint on a wave of press releases, dropping anchor on Franklin Street, a thoroughfare that—with its trendy boutiques, bars, and cafés—seems intent on becoming the next Bedford Avenue. The space was formerly occupied by Queen’s Hideaway (helmed by chef Lisa Queen), a rough-hewn café with a wildly creative menu that included deviled-ham pie, cucumber salad with verbena-chile dressing, and baked squash stuffed with corn and cheese. Sometimes the quirky food hit the mark, sometimes it bombed. Either way, I enjoyed it again and again.
The new chef is Michael Sullivan, who worked at Chanterelle. The Hideaway apparently wasn’t big enough, so Anella annexed a second storefront. The new furnishings are “urban rustic,” a decorative style I’ve come to dread. There’s a bar of pedigreed wood, distressed walls that remind me of a crumbling tenement apartment, an open kitchen with a conspicuous brick oven, and a string of tables culminating in a conversation pit that surveys Franklin Street. The backyard is the real gem of the place, dotted with Shasta daisies, providing tables under a wooden trellis. Sitting outside in the summer is like an instant vacation to Italy. Well, minus the excellent food.
With its limited menu, Queens Hideaway qualified as a bistro, while Anella is more of a brasserie, with a far-flung, quasi-Italian bill of fare intended to please absolutely everyone. It’s a tactic we’ve seen over and over lately, with many dishes pirated from other places. The bedrock is starchy pastas; from there, the menu traipses to buzzwordy apps (crudo! Crostini! Terrine!), greenmarket salads (some laudably grown on a nearby rooftop), low-carb entrées, comfort-food sides, desserts, and a cheese course. Finally, as if all the foregoing weren’t enough, there are the inevitable pizzas. The menu has no point of view, as if accountants had conceived it with the idea of creating an establishment that would be a sure-fire cash cow.
The apps and salads are a jumble of things that you’ve had better versions of elsewhere. The chicken-liver crostini ($7) resembled brown toothpaste with cardboard bacon on top, and no one had bothered to toast the stale bread underneath. The frito misto featured an unremarkable assortment of vegetables, which were pale from having escaped the fryer too soon. By contrast, the homemade mozzarella ($8) was luscious, served with good tomatoes and basil pesto. Even when the starter was assembled from sound ingredients—like asparagus with a poached egg on top—the kitchen often failed in the dish’s execution: In this case, the asparagus was woody and should have been peeled, while the poached egg was cooked hard, depriving us of its lubrication.
Generally, there’s some oomph to the entrées, and one evening, we enjoyed a special of seared scallops ($19)—sweet, juicy specimens that were only partly hobbled by a bland tomato sauce. The pork loin wrapped in bacon was tasty, but a bit dry. And the pastas tend to be awful. An amatriciana sauce made with bacon instead of guanciale clotted the spinach papardelle like blood on a corpse ($15). The noodles were so gummy and thick that a friend thought each individual noodle represented several stuck together, and tried in vain to pry them apart.
The pizzas are even worse. Sometimes they’re damp and doughy, as was our truffle pie ($15) one evening. Though the menu claimed it was “topped with truffle cheese and drizzled with truffle oil,” neither of those ingredients was detected. Another time, the pies were thin and cracker-like, as if leavened with baking soda instead of yeast. But on our last visit, the margherita pie was good, with a springy crust, creamy mozzarella, and just the right amount of tomato sauce. Yet there’s no assurance that the kitchen will get future pies right.
Finishing the last of our BYOB bottle of wine, a bargain red from Maria Cuomo of Italy’s Amalfi Coast, we thought about skipping dessert, but indulged anyway, if only to linger in the garden. The cheesecake proved excellent, of the crumbly Italian school and dribbled with strawberry compote. A wobbly pana cotta that achieved its effects without too much gelatin was also beguiling. Finally, the partly locavoric cheese platter ($9) from Saxelby Cheese was superb, served unfussily with walnut bread and honey.
Such inconsistency is maddening, which poses the question: Do you skip Anella entirely, or do you go for the backyard, and navigate the menu like a doughboy in a minefield?