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OLD WORLD FLAVORS

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There’s a funny cast of characters behind the recently opened Cibo e Gente on Smith Street.

When we walked in, manager Paolino was preparing a sign made from a wooden frame laced with wool strings. He was paper-clipping menus with the evening’s specials to the rigged-up strands, moving the lists of wines, the special entrees and desserts around and around until they were just right.

He placed the sign in the window, then walked outside to check. A second later he was inside again, moving the board a fraction of an inch to the right. Outside once more, he stared at his work, then gave it a "this will have to do" nod before re-entering the dining room.

Similarly, our waiter, Fabio, didn’t hesitate for a moment to tell us if our choices could be improved upon.

"Do you recommend the beef carpaccio?" I asked.

"It’s nice," he agreed. "Pork scaloppine with prosciutto? Shrimp with leeks in a wine sauce?"

Both "good," said Fabio. But his eyes were flat, and there was no smile when he said it.

"Rib eye steak with porcini mushrooms - that is what I would order," Fabio added. So the steak was our mutual choice.

It was the same with the wine. After a moment left to peruse the well-edited list of mostly Italian wines, many from lesser-known vineyards, Fabio returned and inquired, "red or white"?

When I hesitated, he said "red" and walked away. Moments later he returned with a glass of the most velvety Montepulciano I’ve encountered.

Grazie, Fabio.

The owners of Cibo e Gente, ("Food and people" in Italian) who opened the eatery in June, are the trio who founded Boom, Via Della Pace and Via Delle Zoccolette, all in downtown Manhattan. They’ve brought along Andrea Borio, who served as chef in each of the restaurants’ kitchens. His cooking is the kind of robust, unpretentious fare you would find throughout Northern Italy.

The setting is similar to Borio’s cuisine: fresh and a little quirky. There’s the warm dining room, beautifully lit with autumnal-colored hanging lamps and fat, white candles flickering atop the tables. A big dining area in the back of the restaurant possesses the same cozy-yet-elegant appeal as the front space with a perk: one wall is entirely glass with a view of a big patio bordered with tables. By the time you read this, it may be too cold for dining alfresco, but if there’s a single day of Indian summer left, go and sit on Cibo e Gente’s patio. If you’ve sipped a glass of wine in an outdoor trattoria in Italy, dining under the trees here will remind you of those moments. So will the food.

When I was in Italy this summer, the meals that impressed me were more of an assemblage of excellent ingredients than labor-intensive blowouts. Even long-simmered, tomato-based sauces were light and brightly flavored with herbs. And the pastas, well, I’m not a lasagna lover, or, I should say, I’m not a lover of thick-noodled, heavily sauced, overly cheesy lasagna the way it’s often served in Italian-American restaurants.

In Italy, I sampled a different creation altogether. Instead of something that resembles a brick, chefs there layer just a few silken noodles with a bit of meat sauce that’s a blend of beef, pork and veal, and a creamy, wine-tinged bechamel (cream sauce). They use cheese judiciously so that it adds a touch of nutty sharpness.

When Fabio said Borio’s was the best lasagna in New York, and added that it was as good as any you’d find in Italy, I thought, "Bring it on." But I did not really expect it to live up to the pasta I enjoyed there.

Once in awhile, I’m happy to be wrong.

Borio’s lasagna is every bit as wonderful. If you have even the faintest memory of enjoying this dish, order it here.

When the kitchen offers the appetizer of shrimp in lemon sauce, order it, too. The six grilled shrimp are plump and delicately sweet, enlivened by a tart, lemony wine sauce. A side of mixed greens that included arugula tossed with a lemony dressing, added crunch and bitterness to the dish.

Just as impressive was a plate of paper-thin slices of raw beef carpaccio topped with shards of pecorino cheese and drizzled with truffle oil. As in the seafood dish, a small pile of chopped arugula lent its sharp edge to the trio, while saline black olives cut a swath through the richness.

The kitchen grills a tangy rib eye in a deeply flavored sauce strewn with chewy slices of porcini mushrooms. The steak is served with unadulterated mashed potatoes and fresh spinach sauteed with slices of garlic.

Is it the best steak you’ll find in Brooklyn? Probably not. Will you eat it with pleasure? I know I did.

I’ll continue to think about the warm pear poached in Barolo wine, too, a special dessert that Fabio recommended. An entire pear is poached in the red wine until it’s garnet-colored and fragrant. The bottom of the fruit is sliced into petals and sits upon a scoop of vanilla ice cream. The dessert’s sauce is the reduced poaching liquid with a whisper of cinnamon. You can order sweeter, more indulgent desserts - there’s tiramisu, creme brulee and a dark chocolate cake on the dessert roundup - but this refined dish will send you out of the restaurant on a high.

Two Italian restaurants (Aqua and Mare Blu) tried and failed at this address before Cibo e Gente opened, but I don’t see this newcomer suffering the same fate. With the space and the staff being as warm as they are, and the food so delightful, you’d have to work really hard not to enjoy it.

 

Cibo e Gente (174 Smith St. between Bergen and Warren streets in Boerum Hill) accepts cash only. Entrees: $8.95-$14.95. The restaurant is open for dinner daily. Brunch is available on weekends from 11 am to 5 pm. On Oct. 20, the restaurant began hosting monthly, three wine, four-course meals for $30 per person. Each month, a different country’s cuisine will be showcased. For more information about the special events, and to make reservations, call (718) 501-1010.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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