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TASTE OF SICILY

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Scopello doesn’t look like other Italian restaurants in Brooklyn.

Chic without being pretentious, the setting invites a diner to lean back, sip wine and ease into the evening. While the dining room has its own likeable yet hard-to-place personality, the restaurant’s convivial ambience is unmistakably Italian.

On a weekend evening at this new Fort Greene eatery (it opened in February) waiters took the hands of familiar female patrons and walked them to their tables; groups of women drank and ate multi-course dinners; and children, huge napkins tucked under their chins, dug into bowls of pasta. The nascent establishment already feels like a much-loved neighborhood place.

After passing the bar, one enters the high-ceilinged dining room painted a warm orange. Tall, brown leather banquettes line both long walls. Paper lanterns stained the colors of fall leaves illuminate the tables; jazz lends an upbeat and blessedly quiet background to conversation.

Scopello is named for the Sicilian fishing village where owner Fabrizio Di Mitri spent his childhood summers.

"Our dishes," said Di Mitri, "are influenced by the Greeks, Arabs, the Normans and the Spanish. The Arabs brought saffron and sweet and sour tastes, nuts and couscous.

"Of course," he added, "Sicily is an island, so there’s a lot of fish."

Di Mitri imported his mother, Ninni, and uncle Michelangelo Vitale to help create the menu. A quick glance at their offerings and it’s apparent that Scopello isn’t another red sauce palace. Sicily’s global references are present in the caponata, a sweet and sour eggplant stew. Sardines, another Sicilian staple, are baked and stuffed with breadcrumbs, raisins and pine nuts; and slices of raw swordfish "carpaccio" are paired with anise-flavored fennel in a refreshing salad.

To welcome diners, a basket of warm, house-made focaccia is placed on the table. That bread - tender and a bit chewy with the deep olive flavor of the oil - is the real thing. A ramekin of mixed olives steeped in fruity virgin olive oil with slivers of orange peel come next. Dip a piece of the focaccia into the oil that has absorbed the peel’s citrus notes, and it’s a delightful way to begin the meal.

On Fridays, Di Mitri receives a shipment of burrata delle Murge, a mozzarella flown in from Puglia, Italy. The outer part of the cheese was barely firm. Not quite set in the center, the cheese oozed when cut. Mild and milky, nuances of fresh grass emerged as it warmed. Recommended for two, the serving could feed three or even four and is a deliciously novel way to prime the palate.

If you’re not a herring enthusiast, pass on the fish and orange salad. Thick ribbons of herring are served atop a tangy mix of baby lettuce and wedges of oranges. The fish were as potent as a mouthful of seawater; paired with the sweet fruit, the combination gave a one-two punch to the taste buds. On the safer side were tiny, plump mussels served in a delicately seasoned white wine and saffron broth.

Pasta is served at least once a day at Sicilian tables, and it’s well represented on Scopello’s menu. House-made ravioli stuffed with mushrooms were exquisite. Each triangle of the dough was as thin as lace. The filling was pleasingly chunky and the truffles lent their rich, earthy flavor to the pasta’s velvety sauce.

The entrees are served on platters and not meant for delicate eaters. At Scopello, two "Flintstones"-sized ribs were cooked until the meat absorbed the lush flavors of the red wine sauce. They were succulent in a he-man, last meal on Earth kind of way. But the sauce, although tasty, was overly fatty, and the side of green risotto cake, flavored with spinach and arugula, was tepid and too chewy to be considered toothsome.

A better version of the risotto appeared in a pyramid of the creamy grain circled by a special of veal stew with artichokes.

Order it.

The meat had more depth than most veal dishes, and those thick slices of tiny artichokes - crisp on the outside and smooth inside - are reason enough to return to the restaurant.

Among an impressive roundup of pastries, is a contender for best spring dessert - a wild berry tart served with nothing more than powdered sugar and a squiggle of caramel. Under a crown of sweet raspberries, tiny, tart, wild blueberries and blackberries, was a fluffy, lightly sweetened pastry cream. The tart’s thin crust was a little cakey, like a cookie from an Italian bakery. It’s the sort of simple fruit pastry served all over Italy that one can never seem to find here.

How Fort Greene, once the land of take-out food served behind bulletproof glass, became the second coming of Smith Street, dates back to the first, brave bistro owners who opened their restaurants along DeKalb Avenue. Now a new crop of pioneers is invigorating Lafayette Avenue with great eateries. One can argue against gentrification, but there’s no disagreeing that Scopello is a welcome addition to the neighborhood.

 

Scopello (63 Lafayette Ave. between Fulton Street and South Elliot Place) accepts Visa, MasterCard and American Express. Pastas: $11.95. Dinner entrees: $13.95-$16.95. For reservations, call (718) 852-1100.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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