Some restaurants seem to push their way toward perfection over time, tightening their braces until things are just so. Bar Corvo in Crown Heights is not one of these places. A year in and the restaurant is still a charming, crooked, gap-toothed grin on Washington Avenue—not a destination for flawless food and service, but a busy trattoria that has made itself essential to the neighborhood. Couples share crispy sardines and cocktails, twentysomethings bring visiting parents in for dinner, and friends meet for fresh pasta and a bottle of wine. On Saturday mornings, the hot eggs bubbling in tomatoes and melting fontina ($12) show us how a weak body can defeat the most savage of hangovers, if fueled correctly.
Those who love Bar Corvo’s more established sister restaurant in Park Slope, Al Di Là, love it dearly, fiercely, like maniacs almost. Some have been going to the excellent Italian spot since husband-and-wife team Emiliano Coppa and Anna Klinger opened it in 1998, nudging Brooklyn toward a culture of scrappy, independent restaurants with a more personal point of view. Jacob Somers, previously at Al Di Là, is a managing partner here, and Carla Martinez, who worked under Klinger for years, runs the kitchen. Martinez has brought a lot of her mentor’s style over to Bar Corvo, as well as a sure hand with the northern Italian–style pasta dishes.
In the long, narrow kitchen, Martinez and her cooks work side by side—one of them popping Teddy Grahams from an unseen stash below the counter. Flames lick a clay dish of semolina gnocchi ($17), Italy’s rough, cut-and-bake dumplings, bubbling under a fine oxtail ragu until the edges are crisp. Chard-and-ricotta malfatti ($14) are shaped elegantly. The deep green quenelles are swaddled in a crumble of walnuts and olive oil, gently bitter and fragile, composed so lightly that they disappear on the tongue. A lovely tagliatelle al ragu ($15), thick and sticky with braised pork, is deeply comforting, if a bit familiar.
But Bar Corvo is no Al Di Là clone: It’s a funny little place where the sliding door to the bathroom is weighted with an industrial whisk on a rope, and a few stools at the bar are so high, you must climb them with great effort, like a small child. The menu holds surprises, too: rich, hefty batons of beef tongue ($8) battered and fried, tender inside with a delicately crisp shell, that arrive with a creamy horseradish dip. It’s a whole lot of tongue, and fantastic shared over a few cocktails before heading toward the pasta dishes or meatier entrées.
Martinez does nice work with vegetables as well. A rustic, chewy farro salad ($12), studded with caramelized brussels sprouts, vinegary red onions, and roasted hazelnuts, doesn’t lean on meat for its flavor, and it doesn’t need to. A great big steak of cauliflower ($9) gets a bit in your face with anchovies, fried capers, and a smudge of salsa verde.
Specials come and go, some better than others, while a few dishes stay put. The massive pork chop on a bed of soft polenta and bright, wilted greens is a keeper, though a colleague I bumped into on a recent visit told me his companion’s chop was capped with so much fat, she couldn’t even eat the thing. Bar Corvo can miss—a cold, underseasoned dish here and there, an absent-minded server. But order a glass of wine and half of a roasted chicken with grilled radicchio ($18), and even if it takes a half hour longer than it should, you won’t complain about the salty, golden bird lounging on a bed of braised onion and garlic or the pieces of warm bread soaked in its juices.
A panna cotta should wobble over so mischievously that it brings a smile to the most prudish guest at the table. Even at rest, a fidgety one may quiver like a glass of water in Jurassic Park. Bar Corvo’s rendition is still and stiff, contained in a cup. Look past this to the citrusy caramel it can now support: A gorgeous, buttery fruit syrup with the depth of a well-made tarte tatin’s pan drippings. Just level your hand as you eat, or it runs right off the tiny spoon to sticky up your table, your arms, your shirt, everything—a delicious little flaw in its design.