With the debut of the sleek and sexy bruculino in South Norwalk, Joe Bruno finally presides over a true restaurant. "Pasta Nostra was never meant to be more than a lunch spot," he says of the venerable store front that served as the anchor of the Sono culinary scene for 30 years. The place was getting old; Bruno wasn’t getting younger; it was time for something youthful, vibrant, and new.
bruculino (Italian slang for “Brooklyn dude” – as in the person of Joe Bruno) is certainly all that -- and more. Imagined by renowned Westport architect Roger Ferris, the glassy new space at 20 North Main is dominated by a fetching forty foot terrazzo bar that is flanked by 23 neon-red Lucite seats, all staged in what was once a furniture store. For now, the bar is a lavoro in corso (still under construction), but Bruno will soon be mixing an array of spirits and craft cocktails in addition to the well curated wine list he brought over from Washington Street. He also brought his entire staff from PN, both the back and front of the house.
Though very industrial swank with some exposed infrastructure, the dining space remains clean and simple, reflecting the dishes on bruculino’s expanded menu. Meats and fishes drive the entries, the pasta now priced and sized as starters.
For those who come in to specifically enjoy his made-from-scratch noodles, Bruno recommends sampling a number of small pasta plates or doubling a favorite as a main (with only an additional 80% tariff.)
We eschewed the most popular pasta in the house --linguini and bianco clam sauce -- choosing to sample three others. The Pappardelle with roast duck ragu won raves at the table, best in show. We have ordered those broad flat noodles from Rome to Arthur Avenue, and none tasted as ethereal as these at bruculino’s, The source of their delicacy and bite: farm fresh Connecticut eggs, laid by hens fed on antibiotic-free vegetables, and then beaten and blended into a dough which is rolled and sliced “in the proper manner,” according to Bruno.
“If I could, I’d only serve Pappardelle,” he confesses. “It’s my favorite pasta.”
As an homage to the Italian cook and writer, Marcella Hazan, the pasta list includes a delicious Stracotto, silky ravioli stuffed with parmigiana blended into a braise of beef and vegetables. An upscale version of Italian peasant food, the ravioli was at once hearty and light, fit for prince or peasant.
Less soaring, and far more earthbound, the Spaghetti alla Puttanesca comes packed with umami, a tangy tangle of sturdy noodles twisted with olives, tomato, and garlic. The optional anchovies add even more meatiness and brine. Served as a small plate, the robust Puttanesca is a surprisingly big dish, in weight, if not size.
We found the Panelli, --fried slices of chickpea dough popular on the streets of Polermo – disappointing. Even a dollop of Ricotta didn’t enliven the cracker’s dry, bland flavor. However, the Potate alla Palermitana that accompanied it, delicately herbed and crusted Sicilian potato mash balls, disappeared in a bite or two, no fork needed.
Another app, the Antipasto Misto, featured prosciutto and salami sliced so gossamer thin it seemed they might float away. Bruno imported the salami from a favorite salumeria in Hackensack, then hung it in his wine cellar to cure for over a year. Each translucent slice virtually melted in our mouths, finishing with subtle notes of spice, fat, and salt. The accompanying provolone, roasted peppers and olive salad nicely balanced the flight of meat. The best word to describe the antipasto is “exquisite,” a masterpiece artfully crafted by Bruno and his Chef de Cuisine Agustin Gonzales.
We asked Bruno what dish on the new menu best expressed his vision for bruculino. He immediately chose a hot appetizer, the Roast Duck with mostarda and onion marmalade. “It’s cutting edge,” he told us, a riff on an Italian classic that traces back to the Renaissance in Northern Italy.Mostarda, a fruit preserved in a syrup jolted by powdered mustard seeds, is traditionally served with boiled meats. By roasting the crispy duck, then flowering the onion jam with orange zest, Bruno boosts the original sweet and savory profile of the dish. Old school with a new school twist.
Though Chef Joe admits experimental cooking, like molecular gastronomy, is innovative and cool, he feels it too often tends to appeal to the mind rather than the stomach. “The food I cook must be very sensual,” he insists, “you don’t eat ideas.”
Case in point: the pan-seared veal. A banquet of the senses, the sizzling meat looked as good as it smelled, cut, and tasted. I always order veal medium rare, but it’s rare that I get it. This steak came from the stove top perfectly pink, moist, tender and crusted. Though bruculino has been criticized online for its prices and portions (diners must pay extra for water, additional for bread and butter) we thought the generous 14 ounce steak was very fairly priced at 26 dollars.
The dessert cannoli were less outstanding. We found the pastry shell too thick, the ricotta a touch bitter. The orange zest that played so perfectly in the roast duck tasted a bit edgy in the sweet creamy filling.
So why didn’t Bruno keep the name Pasta Nostra for his new restaurant? After all, it was a revered brand that enjoyed a loyal and large following. Celebrities from Martha Stewart to Clive Davis flocked there. “Pasta was big in the 80’s,” the chef explained, but the word didn’t resonate in today’s low-carb world. The name bruculini affords him a new relevancy and wider range.
For instance, in honor of his home town’s ethnic diversity, Joe intends to offer more than Italian plates. Asian, Hispanic, and Jewish influenced foods will eventually make their bows. (Joe laughed and shook his head when asked if he would someday serve an interpretation of Brooklyn’s indigenous Coney Island hot dogs.) For now, the menu offers a Miso Steak with endive stir fry. Soon, a Tostadilla snack will be served at the bar.
And so the culinary revolution that Joe Bruno ignited in SONO 30 years ago evolves, invigorated by his audacious new restaurant. Chef Joe may not cook ideas, but he certainly knows how to build them.
Great space. Superb food.
20 North Main. South Norwalk. 203 854 0722. https://www.facebook.com/bruculino
Hours: Wed thru Sat, bar opens at 4 and dining room at 5:30. Sunday, bar and dining room open at 3.
Park in the public lot in the rear of the building. Leave sufficient time to navigate the pay booths.