Get your passport, pronto!
The eight of you who read my work know about my passion for all things Italian: the espresso, the wine, the men (hmm, sore subject), the music (1990s Zucchero anyone?), but, when you have good, really good Italian food, it can truly be a spiritual experience.
And that just happened. At Strega in Branford. Owner and pizzaiolo Danilo Mongillo alongside his Chef Marco Giugliano have broken ground, dug their hands in, and come out with gold. Mongillo, from Puglianello in the Benevento region of Italy, has been in Connecticut since 2014 and says he’s been so thankful for the Branford community for how welcoming they’ve been since the restaurant opened in 2016.
My guest and I were immediately welcomed by a warm friendly staff and a small “let’s break bread” plate with fresh bread, olive oil, and taralli. Taralli holds a special place in my heart as it was the main thing I’d buy at La Guli in Astoria, Queens for my son when he was a baby; it was his version of a teething ring.
We sat at a high-top next to the window; this way we could look outside, look into the dining room, snoop at folks at the bar, and peer into the piping hot brick pizza oven. The staff was wonderful: kind, attentive, and knowledgeable. When the staff really knows the menu, let alone can beautifully pronounce each item as if they created the dish themselves, you’re already on the right track to a rewarding experience.
Many of the delectables came out on hearty chunks of wood, as if just created by someone’s Nonno and his seasoned hands. The first bite was certainly a hint to the beautiful, light, flavorful journey ahead: Tempura zucchini flowers filled with fresh ricotta, mozzarella and basil. With the perfect balance of savory, sweet, and creamy, these were subtle pillows of greatness.
Our next bite was a beautiful spindle of eggplant, the Melanzana Ripiena, complete with a hint of ‘nduja spicy sausage, sharp parmigiano, and basil powder. Basil powder? That’s right. Each dish seemed to have a bit of creative magic from a strega, witch in Italian and, of course, the restaurant’s namesake.
Now when it comes to pizza, we all have many, many opinions. Unless I am going somewhere solely for pizza, I often hesitate to order it because I don’t want to get too full when trying other things. But, as it seems to be the case at Strega, you will be bewitched. This might have been the lightest pizza I’ve ever had. Thin as all heck, but not to the point of breaking like a cracker. And, it was just delicately kissed with tomato, mozzarella, and basil. Sublime. Can we call pizza sublime? Well, I just did.
Now for the most creative, artistic, mind-blowing dish of the night. Thin slices of calamaro served with Scapace mousse, zucchini, caviar and rice paprika chips. It was so flavorful, surprising, and impossible to believe that what looked like paper thin strips of fettuccine, were actually strands of calamari. The salty punch of caviar as an accessory made my head spin.
Ok, while my head spun from the calamari, it almost popped off after the next dish. It could not have been simpler, but the bowl of fresh tomatoes and mozzarella over arugula was incomprehensibly fresh. Almost simultaneously my guest and I looked at Mongillo and Chef Giugliano and shook our heads. “Wait a minute. Where? What? These tomatoes???” Well, remember when I said good Italian food could be spiritual. The tomatoes are imported from Piennolo del Vesuvio, and before they reach our palates, are hung on strands that must come directly from heaven. To be honest, this bite of sweet, ripe tomato was indescribable. The end.
But seriously, Mongillo and Guigliano make for a spell binding duo. Guigliano, from Piazzola di Nola came out in person to say hello and gift us with more beauty on a plate with a cappelletti dish showcasing the essence of eggplant parmesan. In French art it is called trompe l'oeil, tricks of the eye; in Italian, it must just be strega.
Before we finished the meal with tiny, deconstructed bits of cannoli, mascarpone, fruit, and espresso we partook in the restaurant’s namesake with a touch of Strega, the iconic digestif hailing from Mongillo’s region of Benevento since the late 19th century. Packed with numerous herbs, including mint, fennel, and saffron, which gives the drink its golden hue, there could not have been a more delicious, symbolic end to a soul-satisfying meal.
Danilo’s passion for delivering a wonderful dining experience is clear. From the cozy corner location in Branford, to the kind and cultivated staff, to the out-of this word delicious taste of each plate, Strega must be on every Connecticut eaters list. If not, you may be very well be cursed!
In addition to recently being voted Best Italian 2019 by CT NOW for New Haven County, Strega was just recognized by Gambero Rosso, the world’s foremost authority on Italian food, wine, and travel, for its excellence in authentic Italian cuisine. It’s the first time GR has bestowed such an award on an Italian restaurant in Connecticut.
576 Main Street
Branford, CT 06405