Brunello Italian Kitchen
1945 Deer Park Ave., Deer Park
SERVICE: Friendly and attentive
AMBIENCE: The bar is a little cramped, but the contemporary dining room is warm and inviting
ESSENTIALS: Lunch, Tuesday to Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner, Tuesday to Thursday and Sunday 5 to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 10 p.m.; wheelchair accessible, credit cards, small parking lot and street parking.
There’s a battle being waged at a new restaurant in Deer Park, as Italian-American standards duke it out with New American inventions.
The dining room at 4-month-old Brunello Italian Kitchen — all soft earth tones, modern lighting and chic upholstery with nary a red-and-white tablecloth in sight — seems to tilt toward New American.
But in the kitchen, red sauce wins in a rout.
No surprise, when you consider that partners Vincent Palmieri and Domenick Maresca were, respectively, the owner and chef at East Islip’s red-sauce stalwart, Vinnie’s Mulberry, for more than 25 years.
Despite its stylish décor, Brunello is at its strongest when it sticks to the classics. Almost anything covered with red is going to be good. Maresca, the chef, uses San Marzano tomatoes (grown on the banks of Mount Vesuvius near Naples) to make both his simple, clean marinara and the meatier Sunday sauce.
The former is a perfect partner to the fried calamari, coated with a delicate, parsley-flecked crust. The latter drenches the worth-a-trip-to-Deer Park jumbo veal meatball, a tender orb that is first smothered in ricotta.
The Sunday sauce also anchors a bowl of mezzi rigatoni that is heaped with meatball, sausage and braciole (beef rolls). At $17.95 and big enough for two, it could easily become a Sunday tradition.
The sauce-free clams oreganata also deserve a shout-out. Appetizers don’t get better than these whole littlenecks veiled with seasoned breadcrumbs.
Some of the chef’s innovations pay off: Chicken Fontinella is a sort of gussied-up Parm, a cutlet stuffed with Fontina cheese, sage and prosciutto and topped with mushrooms and a savory sauce that’s half brown and half Sunday.
But an accomplished beef ragu could not fully redeem Brunello’s signature dish, “train wreck lasagna.” Instead of the usual neat layering of ingredients, it is a sloppy bowlful of sauce, ricotta, mozzarella and standard-issue ruffle-edged noodles. More lazy than playful, it struck me as the kind of recipe you’d find in an old issue of Good Housekeeping called “easy weeknight lasagna.” Still, it tasted good.
It’s when the kitchen veers away from red sauce that things go off the rails. The first food you encounter at Brunello is make-your-own bruschetta: A basket of toasted, cottony, sesame-seeded bread and oily focaccia (almost burned on one occasion) is served with a shallow bowl of listless, pink tomatoes whose only flavor comes from chopped onions. The kitchen’s antipathy toward vegetables continues with asparagus Milanese, made with pale, tasteless spears that can’t be redeemed by fried egg or grated Parmesan.
An appetizer called dolce Gorgonzola con prosciutto would have been too sweet for dessert, and even the most undistinguished prosciutto and Italian blue cheese deserve better than such bland, puffy bread and enough fig jam and balsamic syrup to ice a small cake.
Equally misbegotten were the ravioli ciambella, large pasta rounds filled with spinach and ricotta, drowned with undersalted cream and topped with incongruent stumps of stringy short rib and undercooked carrots.
The short ribs fared better in an entrée incarnation, but were saddled with a bed of over-garlicked mashed cauliflower. How much better this dish would have been with mashed potatoes or polenta. Call it revenge of the carbs.
The train wreck lasagna made me wary of ordering what the menu calls “freshly squeezed cannoli,” but it turned out to be merely freshly filled — and bested the other two desserts sampled: both the stodgy chocolate cake and the restrained, decorous tiramisu were forgettable.
Service, however, was memorable. On one extremely busy weekend evening, half of my party was more than 30 minutes late, but the host held the table and could not have been kinder about it. That generosity of spirit is rare in the low-margin restaurant business and, along with the Sunday sauce, it tilts the balance strongly in Brunello’s favor.