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ROMANTIC RISTORANTE

Billyburg’s Baci & Abbracci has delish menu and garden

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It’s that time again: My daughter has left for camp. My husband and I will miss her, of course, so we shared a moment of silence before opening a bottle of wine and deciding where to have dinner.

It wasn’t difficult to narrow our choices down to Baci & Abbracci in Williamsburg. With a name that translates to "kisses and hugs" in Italian, and a lush outdoor garden to while away a late supper, it seemed an apt spot for two suddenly free adults to enjoy one another.

We walked through the ristorante’s polished dining room before settling at a table in the garden. Inside, the decor is swankier than most Billyburg hangouts with curvy wooden chairs and shelves of backlit wine bottles.

The restaurant’s patio is a simply decorated area with a wooden fence and a tier of potted blue hydrangeas. There is no music in the garden, so we could hear each other easily. A cat, perched on the fire escape of a nearby building, voiced an occasional plaintive meow and a few muffled car honks sounded as if the traffic was miles - not yards - away. It’s a blessedly serene way to dine.

The owners of this new ristorante are brothers Paolo and Carmine Cappiello, with partner Rocco Cadolini (who owns Roc in Tribeca). The brothers are as hip as their patrons: Paolo bald and sporting a soul patch; Carmine in a chocolate brown T-shirt with the eatery’s logo. Both move about the dining room and garden, welcoming newcomers, stopping to see if customers are enjoying their meals and pouring wine.

"The food," says Paolo, "is mostly Tuscan with a little Sorrento [where the brothers grew up] thrown in." The partners, who opened their eatery in April, hired chef Franco Migliorine to create the menu and oversee the kitchen, with Sorrento native, pizzaiolo Francesco Mastelione making magic in the wood-burning oven.

Migliorine’s preparations are light, but each dish is boldly flavored and simply plated to showcase fine ingredients. He has an affinity for ragus (the long-simmered meat sauces); there are three on the pasta section - as well as a number of gutsy noodle dishes. The penne was cooked al dente (an ideal, just this-side-of-chewy tenderness) and topped with a pungent, creamy-yet-weightless anchovy sauce dotted with rich black olives. It may sound like sodium overload, but the saline taste was oceanic, like a mouthful of seawater, not like someone went wild with the saltshaker.

His lovely antipasti of stuffed vegetables contrasted robust notes with a delicate, breadcrumb topping. One large mushroom cap, a small eggplant half, a chunk of zucchini and a piece of red pepper cooked down to a mousse-like jam, were topped with just a spoonful or two of moist, crunchy, slightly garlicky bread crumbs. The topping added to - not distracted from - their earthy vegetable bases. The delicate appetizer needed nothing more than a dab of Migliorine’s piquant, chile-brightened tomato sauce to enliven the dish.

Tuscan cooking is known for its use of thyme, sage, tarragon and rosemary, as well as its fine-roasted meats. In the succulent "stracotto di maiale," a hefty roasted pork loin chop met its match when teamed with the deeply fragrant rosemary. There are three elements to the dish: the crusty-edged meat infused with the herb, a bit of rosemary-redolent brown sauce and a few creamy triangles of polenta. After taking one bite and inhaling the fresh aroma of the sauce, I knew the chef had probably cooked the dish a million times and still took pleasure in its unbeatable pairing of sweet meat and piney herb.

Mastelione’s "Baci & Abbracci" pie, topped with the perfectly harmonious trio of smoked mozzarella, pancetta and caramelized onion, is reason enough to visit the restaurant. The crust is thin but has enough heft to award a bit of chewiness. The combination of the cheese, enhanced by the wood smoke, the tender, salty ham and sweet onions, made it nearly impossible for us not to polish off the entire, beautifully charred serving.

The caramelized orange is one of those non-desserts you order when you’re stuffed but still want something slightly sweet to finish the meal. Refreshing slices of the fruit are cooked in simple sugar syrup and served topped with slivers of orange rind.

Beneath the slightly sweetened whipped cream on the "torta della nonna" is a thick tier of pistachio pudding perched on a crisp crust. While Migliorine’s grandmother’s pastry appeared to have all the buoyancy of an encyclopedia, it was light, delicately flavored, and like all dishes that preceded it, melded tastes harmoniously.

By the end of our meal, we were a little giddy - weeks with no kid to worry about is no small thing. And, yes, a couple of glasses of wine only added to the evening’s pleasure. So we fell for Baci & Abbracci’s charms. What can I say? It’s hard to be neutral about a place that means "kisses and hugs" and finds so many ways of giving you just that.

 

Baci & Abbracci (204 Grand St. between Driggs and Bedford avenues in Williamsburg) accepts cash only. Entrees: $14-$24. The restaurant serves lunch and dinner daily. Brunch is available from noon to 4 pm on weekends. For reservations, call (718) 599-6599.

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