Virgola Oysters & Wine Bar
5 Village Green Way, Patchogue
SERVICE: Witty, poised and well-informed
AMBIENCE: Modern and austere by day, more romantic after sunset
ESSENTIALS: Open Monday to Thursday 4 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday noon to midnight, Sunday noon to 10 p.m.; credit cards accepted; wheelchair accessible; street parking is a challenge.
It's the hazy end of an August afternoon, and a server wipes down the tables of a courtyard cafe after a thunderstorm. She takes our order and then disappears inside, and we watch the sleepy action on the plaza: A woman strolling by with three dogs, a couple of guys chatting on a bench. A few more storm clouds rolling in.
After a long pause, the server reappears with a dozen oysters and curls of chilled shrimp on a bed of ice, plus a cocktail the color of sunset — Aperol, gin, vermouth and prosecco, otherwise known as a Negroni Royale.
It's almost dinnertime, but not quite, and as lazy an aperitivo hour as can be. Instead of northern Italy, though, this is Patchogue — specifically, the courtyard of the residential complex New Village, where Virgola opened earlier this summer.
This tucked-away oyster-and-Italian-wine bar doesn’t necessarily bill itself as a place for pre-dinner snacks and drinks, but Virgola might cement that late-day ritual in Patchogue’s foodscape. Its cocktail menu is dotted with bittersweet drinks (the spritz-like Margarita Italiano and spicy Bloody Mary are standouts); its thoughtful wine list is entirely Italian; and its menu doesn’t wander far from shellfish, crudo, ceviche and caviar, plus imported Italian cheeses and salumi.
This is not Virgola’s first incarnation; in 2013, restaurateur Joseph Marazzo opened a oyster and Italian-wine bar in a 6-foot-wide West Village alley, and it gained attention for both its tight quarters and evocative atmosphere. Though the original Virgola recently closed, Roy Cifuni purchased the business and reassembled it — modern lines, succinct menu and all — in Patchogue. This Virgola is airier than its predecessor, with high and low tables and a handsome bar backed by a tidy lineup of wine bottles.
Because of Virgola's tiny, minimally appointed kitchen — there is no freezer — head chef Anthony Borges has to work with really, really fresh fish, cheese and produce. He does, and it shows, especially in Virgola's seafood towers, which combine oysters, shrimp cocktail, ceviche, crudo and caviar in varying levels of complexity and price ($50, $75 and $100), but which are also sold a la carte. For a place that bills itself as an oyster bar, though, Virgola is kind of limited in its bivalves, featuring one, maybe two, varieties from each coast. Repping the East recently were briny Powder Points from Massachusetts and East Points from Virginia — this time of year, the latter were almost like pockets of water, though, likely spent from spawning. The petite, deeper-cupped West Coast oysters — such as gutsy Shigoku and creamy Kusshi — show better during the summer, but hopefully Virgola will shuck excellent local oysters come fall. Virgola presents all of them with on-point garnishes, including a chili-laced mignonette, fresh shaved horseradish and a punchy cocktail-esque sauce.
Other raw-fish dishes were slightly uneven. Silky flaps of salmon daubed with sesame oil get a kick from chili, and dainty bay scallops are bathed in blood-orange juices, making them almost like candy. But Virgola’s halibut ceviche, tumbled with too much mango, is chewy, and a tuna-avocado tartare tasted diluted. A counterpoint for both were ramekins of salmon roe and American black caviar, smears of salty delight on Carr crackers or toast.
Land-based snacks come in the form of Italian salumi and cheeses, which the kitchen artfully arranges on oblong tiles. A la carte, they’re $8 a portion, or six for $36 — the latter a bang-up deal for charcuterie of this caliber. Among the standouts are smoky ribbons of speck and garlicky Felino salami, as well as a smoldering, smearable nduja. Curd-wise, don’t miss the oozy, tangy robiola, produced from two kinds of milk (cow and sheep). Slim fingers of raschera, a salty raw-milk cheese, come alongside a small pot of honey for dipping — a crafty touch.
A small rota of salads can be piggybacked onto the salumi boards, including a bright panzanella, truffle-oil laced mushrooms, or a spot-on caprese of buffalo mozzarella wedged between lush summer tomatoes. You can veer toward hot food via piadina, or flatbreads, slightly chewy and cut into squares. A bright marinara (a recipe of Cifuni’s) renders the margherita the best of the bunch.
Though savory snacks rule here, sweet territory includes a photogenic Nutella-slathered toast and a cinnamon-laced cannoli. Neither assault with sweetness, and both are worthy endings to a finely tuned repast.