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BORN AGAIN

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One of the most difficult lessons in life is giving people what they want, rather than what you want them to have. It took some trial and error, but Peter Sclafani and Kristen Hallett, the husband-and-wife team behind the former Luce in Park Slope, and Luce’s reincarnation, Bar Toto, now understand that concept.

Luce was a moderately priced, casual restaurant with good food in a location on Sixth Avenue that was, and continues to be, a culinary no man’s land. The restaurant, which opened in 2002, had a following of older, affluent diners, but as the couple soon realized, young families were not visiting as often as they had hoped.

"The neighborhood needed a kid friendly place where diners could really stretch a buck," says Sclafini.

Luce didn’t fit the bill.

In October, Bar Toto (his father’s nickname) replaced Luce. Only minor changes have been made. The pressed-tin walls and ceiling and vintage tile floor remain. A long bar replaces a smaller one, and that’s about it for the decor.

Stephanie Markowitz, the sous-chef under Luce’s former executive chef Andrew Blackmore-Dobbyn, developed the new menu. Markowitz has added simple dishes such as panini with a huge pile of delectable, matchstick fries, a few good burgers and crisp, grilled pizzas. Several simple pasta dishes are offered and a few entrees - four exactly - are included for those who can afford a $12 splurge. The rest of the dishes are priced at $6-$9 - a tab that enables diners to visit several times a week.

On one visit, I tried a simple arugula salad with shaved Parmesan. It was reminiscent of the salad I tasted at Luce two years ago, but better. The greens were tossed with a sharper, lemony dressing that nicely offset the salty richness of the Parmesan. On another evening, the panzanella salad was a surprise. Panzanella, as I’ve enjoyed it before, is a mix of ripe tomato, and cucumber chunks, sometimes with a few anchovies, and large chunks of Italian bread tossed in a light oil and vinegar dressing. The salad is served when the bread absorbs just enough of the dressing to soften it but not turn it soggy. This panzanella is actually a caponata, a slightly sweet one, but very good. Tomatoes, roasted peppers, olives and capers are mixed in a sweet and tart dressing. The bread cubes add a chewy component.

Pizzas are individually sized, topped with fresh cheese and light, well-balanced sauces. The "Quattro Formaggi," or four cheeses - fresh and smoked mozzarella, gorgonzola and Parmesan - is cheese overkill saved by a sprinkling of pine-scented fresh rosemary.

The tomato sauce on the "Margherita," the simplest of the four pies, is slightly spicy with just enough garlic and fresh basil. Grilling crisps the pie’s crust and lends a smoky flavor.

The way a short stint on the grill transforms Bar Toto’s simple pies into something exceptional, careful and creative handling of ingredients elevates many of the other dishes.

Take the eggplant Parmesan, for instance. It is as commonplace a dish as scrambled eggs and bacon, as it shows up on hero rolls in pizza-by-the-slice places, cheap red-sauce restaurants and better Italian cafes. Often it’s over-breaded, oily and dull. But when this dish is made well, it’s a wonder. Bar Toto’s rendition is light, not greasy, with the cheese and tomato enhancing the flavor of the eggplant. Each layer of eggplant in Markowitz’s version is gently breaded with just a touch of tangy tomato sauce and fresh Parmesan. It is lovely.

Another winning entree is the braised sausage with grilled polenta. The pork sausage is housemade, not too garlicky and studded with fennel seeds. Slices of the savory meat are stewed with fresh spinach, garlic and whole plum tomatoes that are slow-roasted until they’re sweet. Elegant it’s not, but this simple, deeply flavored stew is soul-satisfying.

I loved a light, creamy cheesecake offered as a special, but pairing the rich dessert with a puddle of creme anglaise made little sense - the two similar components canceled each other out. The cake needed something tart - maybe a bit of fruit compote or even a few simple berries - to balance its richness. And, I’m not a big fan of that old workhorse tiramisu, but this dessert’s tiers of sponge cake were airy yet moist and layers of mascarpone cheese were whipped until pillowy and delicate.

It’s not easy to step away from something you believe in and say, "This isn’t working. Let me rethink it." Having done that, Sclafini and Hazlett’s Bar Toto is the kind of easy, inexpensive neighborhood spot with good food everyone wants and so few of us are blessed with.

 

Bar Toto (411 11th St. at Sixth Avenue in Park Slope) accepts Visa, MasterCard and American Express. Entrees: $7-$12. From April 15-22, Bar Toto is participating in Dine In Brooklyn restaurant week, offering three-course dinners for $18.98. The restaurant serves dinner seven nights a week. From 11 pm to 2 am each evening there is a "reverse happy hour" with tap beers and well drinks for $3. For reservations, call (718) 768-4698.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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