Theme restaurants irk me.
Call me a cynic, but I can’t pretend I’m dining in Paris simply because someone hangs a lace curtain in the window and paints the walls to give the impression of nicotine stains. When rumpled looking moms pushing strollers are outside my window and the subway is rumbling below me, then sorry, it doesn’t matter how good the onion soup is, I’m still in Brooklyn.
So I was skeptical when I walked into Park Slope’s Convivium Osteria. The room looks like a well-appointed stage set for a scene taking place in a Spanish or Portuguese taverna, or maybe a trattoria in Rome. Every detail from the painted, ocher-toned walls to the rough-hewn tables, some communal, screams rustic Mediterranean.
And frankly, that worried me.
I’ve found that when a room has star billing the food is often the understudy. But that’s not the case here. At Convivium Osteria food rules the show. And what food! After a few sips of Rioja wine and a sampling of the most complex, well-seasoned tapas I’ve tried, this restaurant won me over. I was in the Mediterranean! The F train could have stopped at my table and you couldn’t have convinced me otherwise.
Chef and co-owner Carlo Pulixi and chef Charles Giangarra have skipped around the Mediterranean combining the flavors of Spain, Portugal and Italy. They handle seasoning so expertly and with such daring that even the simplest dish is boldly flavored and deeply satisfying. So satisfying in fact that once we started eating, we couldn’t stop.
Michelle Nolan, the manager and co-owner, commented, "You ladies have a great appetite!" We weren’t the only ones with oversized appetites. Diners were tucking into plates of artichokes, a huge, powerfully fragrant Black Angus steak, and platters of seafood, oblivious to the sweltering heat outside.
Flattery and great bread will always win my heart. The candlelight overhead was flattering and the bread was served warm from the oven. But while the accompanying olives, very tiny to big and meaty, were salty and just briny enough, we missed butter or a good, fruity olive oil to spread on those delicious slices.
We started our meal with the seafood tapas for two, "tapas del pescador." Savory and richly flavored, these "little whims" were the perfect prelude to our entrees. Two of the six small dishes we tried sent us straight into the stratosphere; the other four we merely liked - a lot. On the like-a-lot side was a cold "piquillo" red pepper stuffed with a creamy crabmeat filling; "rissois" a light, crisp turnover filled with ground shrimp in a delicate white sauce, and smoked trout seasoned simply with salt, pepper and olive oil. Very tender shrimp were served in a paprika-accented garlic sauce that enhanced their sweetness.
The two dishes that had us swooning were the tuna tartare and the vinegar preserved anchovies. The tuna, served in small chunks, had a velvety texture perfectly accented by the crunchy strips of celery, the tartness of lemon and the heat of red pepper. If the only anchovies you’ve tasted are those tossed atop a pizza or criss-crossed over a Caesar salad, then try the anchovies here. First preserved in vinegar and then soaked in olive oil, their clean, not too salty, flavor is a revelation.
Besides the tapas, we indulged in an appetizer of braised artichokes, "carciofi alla romana con mentuccia." Two enormous artichoke hearts came braised in white wine and fruity olive oil, and seasoned with garlic and mint. What could be more attractive than two green artichokes sprinkled with mint sitting on a coarse brown dish? The chefs have an eye for presenting their dishes with a simplicity that suits the rustic quality of a tavern.
Diners at the table next to us were moaning as they were eating fried salt cod fillets, "pataniscas de bacalhau," so we ordered those, too. Creamy on the inside and crisp on the outside with a delicate flavor, they were served with a bean salad that perfectly complemented the quiet nature of the fillets. This salad of tiny white beans, small cubes of chorizo sausage and hot red peppers bore no resemblance to the loathsome three-bean salads served at the picnics of my youth.
If there’s a culinary award akin to the Oscars then chefs Pulixi and Giandarra deserve to win one for their Sicilian seafood with couscous, "cuscus alla trapanese." This dish, so enormous in both scale and taste, could have fed the cast of a movie. What seems like an entire ocean of shellfish, including a huge lobster tail and claw, is heaped atop broth-soaked couscous flavored with coriander seeds and almonds. It’s soft-core porn for seafood lovers. At $42 for two, the dish might seem pricey, but three could stuff themselves on the heaping portion. And, after eating this you’ll feel so well cared for, so nurtured, that a visit to your therapist will seem superfluous. Think of the money you’ll save!
Our only disappointment was the roasted baby rack of lamb with cauliflower and olives "chuletas de corderito con coliflor." A stiff breadcrumb topping detracted from otherwise perfectly cooked lamb. The cauliflower was overcooked and overly spicy, and to my taste the marriage of olives and cauliflower was not a match made in heaven.
Skip dessert? With a glass of Malvasia Dulce, a light, clean-tasting, just-sweet-enough dessert wine and cups of really strong espresso, we shared (our only moment of restraint all evening) grilled pecorino cheese with eucalyptus honey. Not quite a dessert, and too sweet for a cheese course, it might disappoint traditional cake and ice cream lovers. To us, it was perfection. Other offerings include: flourless chocolate cake, Portuguese flan, espresso granita, chocolate panna cotta and chocolate covered figs.
There is a large wine cellar with an extensive selection of excellent wines, sherries and ports. The management has wisely chosen to include plenty of choices in the $20 to $35 range. Ask the knowledgeable staff to help you navigate the seven-page list.
You may notice me sitting at a table in the large, outdoor garden behind the restaurant. I’ll be alone next time, quietly eating the seafood couscous for two and not caring a bit what you might think of that.
Convivium Osteria (68 Fifth Ave. between Bergen Street and St. Marks Place) is open Monday through Saturday for dinner. On Sunday they serve an early dinner starting at 2 pm. Entrees for one: $13-$22, entrees for two: $42-$48. Cash only. For more information, call (718) 857-1833.