Venanzio Pasubio, preparing wood-fired pizza at Il Brigante
By Frank Angelino
Venanzio Pasubios recently opened Il Brigante, in the South Street Seaport area, is rooted in the food of his native Calabria. Calabria is one of those southern Italian regions that have to work hard to get any culinary respect. Impoverished and less educated, and thus less written about than the northern regions, Calabria was viewed as a place where inventive peasants cobbled together a meal from their hardscrabble land, relying mainly on vegetables and the heavy use of spicy hot peppers.
Pasubio has made Il Brigante overcome those inaccurate perceptions by building a menu that relies heavily on well-known Italian foods such as pizza and linguine with clam sauce, the calling cards of Naples, which is is immediately north on the seacoast from Calbria close enough for Pasubio to have gained an understanding of what makes those two dishes excel, and how to adapt them for his Seaport restaurant.
In the past ten years, the area has changed rapidly from a place you wouldnt readily consider for dining, to one with a number of attractive new restaurants, modern condominiums and shops. Pasubio was attracted to the Seaport by its renewed activity and historic buildings in a casual waterfront setting, reminiscent of Calabrias coast.
Il Brigante calls itself as a trattoria-pizzeria, which means that pizza is less than half of what it offers on its full menu. For appetizers, the cook does a much lighter than usual, delicately fried calamari, mullet and shrimp called fritturella mista thats served with a tasty tomato sauce.
A side dish of cauliflower is baked in the wood-burning pizza oven, and bathed in a thin béchamel sauce characteristic of the way vegetables are prepared in Calabria.
Another Calabrian offering is the fusilli pasta Silani, coils of pasta topped with a sausage ragu and caciocavallo cheese, also baked in the brick oven to bring its flavors together.
Il Brigantes spaghetti alla vongole veraci is a superior version of the dish, probably the most mistreated Italian pasta dish in New York. Here, the sauce has good flavor from the clams, white wine and parsley, which are all nicely balanced and not too assertive. Rigatoni alla Norma, a popular dish of Sicily, just to the south of Calabria, features smoky, charred rectangles of eggplant with shaved ricotta salata in a complimentary tomato sauce.
Il Brigante cooks its pasta al dente so you can properly taste the pasta itself, though not as al dente as most restaurants in Italy prepare pasta. (Pasubio says some customers, not used to having pasta properly cooked, Dont like it.)
The slightly toothsome, tradition Italian preparation reveals the pastas inherent flavor, which is why pasta dishes in Italy are lightly sauced they dont need an abundance of sauce to give them flavor.
In describing the secret of his pizza on a recent Sunday afternoon, when he was found busily making pies in his pizza makers absence, Pasubio says, Its the thin crust, only seven ounces, that must be consumed here and is not for delivery. I use Caputo OO flour from Naples, make my dough with only water, yeast, salt, flour and extra virgin olive oil.
Pizza ovens take time to develop their unique personalities. In Il Brigantes case it took three months to cure the oven properly, with Pasubio gradually building up the heat from 200 degrees to over 600 degrees. After the classic mozzarella, tomato and basil Margherita, the most popular of the many pies he makes are the Calabria, with red onions, oil-cured olives and spicy salami; the Paesana, with mushrooms, sausage and red pepper; and the Brigante, a cheese and tomato pie topped with wild arugula, parmesan shavings and extra virgin olive oil and brought piping hot out of the oven so their flavors gently meld together by the pizzas heat.
Pescatora is a pie crowned with mussels, shrimps and calamari, whose juices add an intense briny flavor to the pizzas tomato sauce. The pizzas all have a thin crust, with charred spots from the oven and a veneer of crispiness to the bottom. Its the extra virgin olive oil that makes the dough crispy, Pasubio says.
The trattoria has a credible wine list with many Italian wines, most priced at least three times retail price per bottle. The design of Il Brigante is very attractive with brick and ceramic tile walls and floors and open doors with outdoor tables. Looking out to busy Front Street from inside Il Brigante is a visual treat.
A note of caution, however: Il Brigantes interior has a lot of hard surfaces, which make for poor acoustics when its crowded. A member of our party summed up the experience and food in just four words: young, noisy and tasty.
Il Brigante, 214 Front Street, nr. Beekman Street. Open Sun-Thurs, Noon-10:30PM, Fri-Sat, Noon-11PM; entrees priced: pizza $12-17, pasta $11-18, and fish and meat $14-24. (212) 285-0222; ilbrigantenyc.com.