Year-Round Inspired Italian @ Aloi Restaurant

Jeff "jfood" Schlesinger

Photo: Kate SchlesingerMargherita Aloi, the Owner/Chef of Aloi in New Canaan, brought her culinary talent and vision to New Canaan several years ago. Raised in a small town in Piedmont, Italy, she entered the Culinary Institute of Barolo at the age of fourteen. After working for several years in Italy she was recruited by the renowned Pino Luongo, the chef and owner of New York’s La Madri Restaurant (and author of one of my favorite cookbooks “A Tuscan in the Kitchen”). She arrived in the US at the tender age of 18 and assumed the position of Pasta Chef at Le Madri, and subsequently advanced to its Executive Chef in 1998. Fortunately for New Canaan, in 2004 she visited and fell in love with our small town. Margherita accepted the position of Executive Chef at Bel Mare, the predecessor restaurant at the Aloi location, reinvented the restaurant and subsequently purchased the building. Aloi offers both inside and al fresco dining. The interior space is intimate and the décor is subtle and relaxing. The al fresco dining on Aloi’s terrace is one of my favorite places to dine on a warm evening with my wife and friends.  

Photo: Kate SchlesingerAloi’s seasonally evolving menu offers selections that include a varying assortment of delectable salads, luscious pastas and delicious entrees.  The pasta choices are irresistible and I consistently find myself ordering a half portion for my appetizer. My entrée selection usually includes one of the fresh fish dishes, unless a daylong braise is the evening’s special.  Although there are times when I order a non-pasta appetizer, the review below focuses on the pastas and entrées from their 2010 menus

The Homemade Garganelli with White Veal Ragu, Fresh Sage and Shaved Grana Padano has been a staple on Aloi’s menu and is my favorite of Margherita’s pastas. I characterize the sauce more in the manner of a Bolognese with the beautiful tomato sauce elevating the flavors to the perfect level. The combination has the mild gaminess of the veal plus the sweetness of the tomatoes, creating a perfect balance. The homemade garganelli pasta is the ideal shape to hold the sauce and the shaved Grana Padana adds complementing flavor and texture to the richness of the ragu.  

Photo: Kate SchlesingerAnother fabulous pasta dish is the Homemade Pea Flavored Ricotta Cavatelli with Imported Hot and Sweet Sausages Ragu. The sweet and spicy sausages combined with the slightly pea and ricotta enhanced pasta creates a perfect balance. Each time I order a half portion of the cavatelli as my appetizer I wish I chose this rendition as my entrée, it has a wonderful array of flavors. 

The Spring 2010 menu featured a Ricotta and Asparagus filled Tortelli with Jumbo Shrimp and Fresh Marjoram. The creamy filling is more pungent than I anticipated; with a flavor closer to a goat cheese than a ricotta. Atop the tortellis are cooked asparagus and shrimp and a delicious sauce surrounds the dish. The slight tartness of the cheese filling and the sweetness of the shrimp and asparagus make this dish a great addition to the menu. 

A popular Winter offering is the Butternut Squash Filled Ravioli over Thin Slice Prosciutto S. Daniele with Butter and Sage. While I have enjoyed this combination elsewhere, Aloi’s butternut squash is more flavorful and has a deeper earthiness. The pasta is cooked to al dente to offer a nice texture, and the freshly slice prosciutto adds the salt element to the dish. I enjoy the complexity of combining all of the texture and taste elements. 

On a daily basis, Aloi offers varying Risotto combinations. True to her Italian roots, Margherita creates a careful balance between the Arborio rice, the liquid and the additions. She alternates between vegetarian and protein enhanced risottos. My favorite is the asparagus and shrimp version. Unlike many restaurants where the risotto is drier, almost reminiscent of a pilaf, Aloi’s creamier version is beautifully prepared.  The shrimp and asparagus are perfectly cooked and the risotto is finished to the ideal level of texture, with the rice retaining the correct level of bite. 

Photo: Kate SchlesingerAloi’s current entrée selections include Branzino, Chicken, Salmon, Sole, and Veal.  A daily special may include Halibut, as it did on a recent visit, or one of my all-time favorite and highly recommended specials, Aloi’s Osso Bucco.  

A new addition to the menu is a Pan-Roasted Branzino Filet with Mussels, Clams in a Mildly Spicy Tomato Broth with Tuscan Beans and Rosemary. The Branzino is perfectly cooked and arrives with 6-8 large mussels and clams. The mussels are large, sweet and have a wonderful flavor and the clams include small and large variations. The filet is moist, with that lovely mild flavor that Branzino fans take pleasure in and the cherry tomatoes add a nice flavor complement. The tomato broth is more mild than spicy and brings all of the flavors together in a fantastic manner. 

Photo: Kate SchlesingerAlso, exceptionally tasty is the Oven Roasted All Natural Farm Raised Baby Chicken with Spicy Italian Cherry Tomatoes, Vidalia Onions and Potatoes. This new addition arrives in a small cast iron pot directly from the oven.  It looks wonderfully prepared with a nice serving of vegetables and the chicken meat appears moist and tender. 

On the lighter side, the Pan Roasted Filet of Wild Salmon with new potatoes, sautéed escarole and cherry tomato in a mustard and fresh tarragon sauce. In the Winter the accompaniments are changed to Red and Green Lentils Brussel Sprout Leaves, Cherry Tomatoes and White Wine with a trio of mashed potatoes. The colors on the plate are always beautiful and the rich flavor of the wild salmon and the sweetness of the tomatoes are the centerpiece of this dish and work well together.  

Photo: Kate Schlesinger

I must take a moment and give special note to the Osso Bucco, which is the best preparation of this dish I have ever eaten. Many Osso Buccos fall off the bone but have a stringiness and toughness to the meat. Aloi’s is perfect in both of these criteria. An enormous piece of shank meat (about the size of a soft ball) arrives and as you slowly work your way through the dish, each bite becomes more luscious and tender than the previous bite. In addition, the risotto that accompanies the dish is wonderful and the braised vegetables add a wonderful level of earthy flavors.  This is my favorite choice at Aloi. 

Aloi, in New Canaan, is one of the top restaurants in Fairfield County. There are few chefs who can match the deliciousness of Margherita’s house made pastas and the simple elegance of her entrées. With warmer weather arriving, you can request to be seated on the outside terrace and enjoy beautiful al fresco dining. I am glad that Margherita found New Canaan and I am thrilled that I found Aloi.

Aloi 62 Main Street, New Canaan. 203.966.4345