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TAKING THE HIGH ROAD

for The Brooklyn Paper
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It’s hard to imagine now, but just a few years ago, Seventh Avenue was the only game in town when it came to Park Slope dining. No one was thrilled with the uninspired restaurants, but if you wanted to eat in the neighborhood, you worked with what was available.

Then Fifth Avenue started its restaurant renaissance, drawing diners westward.

In May, Giovanni Tafuri stepped up Seventh Avenue’s game when he opened Sette Enoteca e Cucina, a trattoria and wine bar that, unlike the pedestrian establishments nearby, aims higher than the middle ground.

Tafuri - who owns Sapore, a trattoria in Greenwich Village - transformed this Slope site from a sporting goods store into a modern, yet convivial, eatery. He placed the talented Amanda Freitag, the former chef de cuisine at Manhattan’s ’Cesca, in the kitchen, where she’s putting a twist on homey Italian fare. To enhance her rustic cooking, Tafuri installed a wood-burning oven that turns out smoky, thin-crusted pizzas, and even dessert crostadas (free-form tarts).

To keep the mood light, there’s the "venti per venti," or list of 20 Italian wines for $20 each.

Sette (which is Italian for "seven") is one large, square room. Wooden beams crisscross the ceiling; tables that are placed inches apart can feel cozy - or too intimate - depending on your take; and a small bar sits on the side of the room. Like the seating, the lights can be seen as too dim or pleasantly romantic. Amusing fixtures made of wire mesh that resemble bug zappers - without the shiver-inducing "tsst" sound - cast a warm, ambient glow atop the bar and into portions of the dining area.

On a recent Saturday evening, with every seat taken and diners waiting at the bar, the din was remarkable, but steps have been taken to remedy the situation. (If you run your hands under the table, you’ll feel several inches of foam padding that absorb some of the sound. If Sette continues to be this popular, it will need more of it.)

If you look at Sette’s ambience with an optimist’s eye, you’ll see it as a happy place: loud with good cheer, its darkness conducive to intimacy. You’ll need to evaluate the cooking with the same "glass is half-full" approach, which isn’t difficult when so much of the food is appealing.

To begin, several long sticks of chewy, slightly salty, pizza "bianco" (no sauce) are served in tall, mesh cylinders. I would have enjoyed a piece dipped into the olive oil that comes with a bowl of olives, but the bread was unpleasantly cold.

One glitch that appeared early in the meal was underseasoning. A dish that sounds as gutsy as sardines, topped with herbed breadcrumbs and baked in the wood-burning oven, should pack a wallop of flavor. These two large fish are dense and briny, their topping crunchy and delicately lemony, but after a couple of bites, I longed for a ramekin of sea salt on the table. (And this request shouldn’t be seen as demeaning to the chef.)

The "orecchiette" ("little ear"-shaped pasta) is tossed with a bland, grainy pork ragu that cries out for seasoning. And if crisp pancetta is included in the dish - as it’s described in the menu - I missed it.

Yet crisp, salty circles of pancetta add just the right hit of saline to a subtle starter of roasted asparagus in Parmesan "fondu." The fondu (not to be confused with "fondue," the thick cheese or chocolate dips for bread or fruit) is a thin, cream-based sauce flavored with the cheese that sets off the nuttiness of the spears.

Next came an entree that showcased the chef’s talent with elan. The dish is the oven-baked whole "bronzino" (sea bass), its center filled with slices of lemon, red onion and sprigs of lemon thyme and topped with an unusual partner. Atop the fish - and it’s one of the freshest, sweetest, examples of this variety you’ll find anywhere - Freitag places a mound of room temperature arugula tossed with capers and garlic, chunks of fingerling potatoes and slices of garlic. Over everything she drizzles an intensely lemony, herbaceous dressing that unifies the ingredients. It’s a masterful mix of textures and temperatures that make for fine eating.

Desserts are beautifully executed and delicious. Freitag uses mascarpone (Italian cream cheese) for her cheesecake and it’s superb. Lighter than American versions, it has a slightly nut-like taste enhanced by its almond-flavored "amaretti" cookie crust. Beside it is a mound of quince poached in wine and a bit of vanilla. The fruit possesses a texture that’s silkier than a pear with a floral flavor that complements the velvety cake.

The gelato comes from well-known Il Laboratorio del Gelato in Manhattan. I tried three scoops - a delicately flavored pumpkin, a pungent espresso and a creamy hazelnut. Each was unbeatable. The gelato is offered with a buttery, house-baked biscotti that rivaled its partners.

Right now, Sette Enoteca e Cucina’s patio is enclosed and heated, its temporary plastic enclosure strung with twinkling white Christmas lights. In the spring, when the tarp is removed, its diners will sip their Italian wine outdoors, feeling like they’ve traveled a great distance from Seventh Avenue.

 

Sette Enoteca e Cucina (207 Seventh Ave. at Third Street in Park Slope) accepts American Express, Discover, MasterCard and Visa. Entrees: $15-$24. The restaurant serves dinner Tuesday through Sunday. Brunch is available on weekends from 11:30 am to 3 pm. Closed Mondays. For reservations, call (718) 499-7767..

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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