When Joseph Bonacore exited Oceanside’s Lawson Pub last year, he intended to stay away from the restaurant business for a while.
Be glad the plan didn’t last long.
Bonacore returns at Bacaro Italian Tavern, an upbeat, noisy, Italianate spot that quickly has become a neighborhood favorite, for full-flavored food and live music.
It looked like they’d have to set up alfresco tables on Park Boulevard during a recent “Ladies Night,” which featured a fixed-price dinner special, jewelry displayed opposite the jammed bar and a singer who turned Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” into party sounds.
Yet, as Stephen Stills wrote in another context, “There’s something happening here.” And what it is, is very clear: creative cooking, fair prices and attentive service, even when it seems that the dining room and bar scenes seem a beverage away from chaos.
The name refers to those casual Venetian wine bars with terrific snacks at the counter that allow for a leisurely, civilized break in the day. Bacaro even labels its small plates “cicchetti,” as do the authentic bacari.
But this playful Bacaro has about as much to do with Venice as Sunrise Highway does with the Grand Canal.
Families gather for birthday celebrations, couples for anniversaries and dates, groups and solos for drinks and a taste of whatever Bonacore has in mind. Many diners have followed his career, including the 1990s star turn in Rockville Centre at Tuscany, a delightful restaurant, which, of course, had absolutely nothing to do with that region of Italy.
Here, millennials nibble on fried mozzarella sliders, crisp and dressed with tomato jam and basil aioli; and top triangles of pizza crust with a dip of artichoke and broccoli di rape. Boomers enjoy a savory spin on bruschetta, sparked with fiery, spreadable ’nduja sausage, ricotta and artichoke.
And everyone samples the crunchy, satisfying rice balls, packed with pancetta, Asiago cheese and peas. The kitchen turns New American with generous crabcakes and corn salsa, which improve on the dry pulled duck-and-broccoli di rape tacos. Try the eggplant “tidbits,” similar to Parmigiana but on rectangles of garlic bread; and the fine spinach-ricotta ravioli, finished with lemon, butter and pistachios.
Bonacore’s lasagna and manicotti are homey and very good, as is linguine, with broccoli, artichokes, roasted peppers, olive oil and toasted breadcrumbs. They’re trailed by fettuccine with “in the pink” sauce and shrimp; and fettuccine with crumbled chicken sausage, walnuts and broccoli di rape.
Alliteration aside, the now ever-present creamy-center Italian cheese isn’t ideal to melt atop a juicy “burrata burger.” And the salmon “nero style” does fiddle more toward burned than blackened, despite the corn-tomato-mozzarella salsa.
Mainstays such as the ample, panko-crusted chicken Parmigiana; and tender, grilled filet mignon, with broccoli di rape risotto, are highlights. That steak also delivers some nostalgia from Bonacore’s Tuscany: a Coca-Cola demi-glace. The hefty pork shank “osso buco” comes with butternut-squash risotto.
On the side, consider the roasted cauliflower “carbonara” seasoned with bacon, shallots, cream, and Asiago; and the roasted beets with pistachios and goat cheese.
“Bruleed” spoons of cannoli cream do take away from the two mini-cannoli with chocolate chips. Brownie “bites with a kiss” are crowned with Hershey baci, tiramisu turns into bonbons, gelato is treated like tempura.
Bonacore is as restless as ever.