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First Look: Brezza Cucina and Bellina Alimentari

How Ponce City Market's two new Italian eateries stack up


Brezza Cucina is the brainchild of celebrity chef Jonathan Waxman, who melds the California cuisine reminiscent of his Chez Panisse days with Italian influences. Expertise with fish comes by way of executive chef/partner Adam Evans, formerly of seafood restaurant and oyster bar the Optimist.

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Brezza is attached to anchor store Williams-Sonoma. It's cavernous, with tables spread out among oversize pillars and under wide pendant lamps. There's a casual bar area to the left of the hostess stand. A wall of square framed windows in the rear and stringed light bulbs add elements of openness and enchantment. To the right rear is a large performance art kitchen tiled in glossy white with a long wooden counter, where large blocks of Parmesan sit next to their awaiting graters. Fire blazes from the wood-burning ovens.

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The concise daily menu features ingredients of the moment, offering a few pizzas, pastas, mains, and side dishes. Most items highlight simple cooking techniques and bold flavors from the wood oven. Antipasti, the largest category, include selections that could be combined to make a full meal. The kale salad ($9) is a heaping bowl of the daintily chopped greens dressed in lemon vinaigrette and topped with buttery breadcrumbs. Oysters ($15) arrive with the five meaty Pointe Aux Pins (on this day) lightly wood-roasted and swimming in a balsamic butter mixed with salty oyster liquor that you will want to savor with a little added Parmesan for crunch.

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Pizzas ($15-$16) work as an entrée or can be shared along with antipasti for a complete meal. The thin crust of the clam, cauliflower, garlic, and olive oil pie retains the smokiness from the oven while the clams remain plump and redolent of the sea. The gnocchi ($18) are light as feather pillows, served in a creamy mixture of earthy hen of the woods mushrooms and Parmesan.

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Waxman's famed roasted half chicken ($18), with crisp skin and succulent meat, comes with a bright sauce of rough chopped herbs, garlic, capers, anchovies, onion, and olive oil. Add a contorni (side dish) like rosemary potatoes or garlicky wilted greens ($6) for a complete meal.

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The cocktail list is small, but the array of spirits is plentiful. The zingy, acidic Shrub ($14) pairs well with many of the dishes. Wines tilt toward Old World, but there are many New World varietals, as well. The beer list includes a couple of locals.

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Brezza lives up to its name as a "breezy" breath of fresh air into an old space. No tricks, no gimmicks. Simple technique allows local, seasonal ingredients to shine.

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Bellina Alimentari is equal parts eatery and market. Roughly translated from Italian as "lovely specialty store," it fits its moniker. Inside the handsome space is decorated with neutral tones and inviting marble countertops. There are glistening cases of fresh pastas, meats, and cheeses. The eatery traffics in counter service and lines form around the case of colorful salads and antipasti. A library of imported Italian ingredients forms the boundary to the right and small café tables fill the wooden floors. In the rear is a 14-seat full-service bar with comfy, stunning seats fashioned after vintage stools.

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Restaurateur/architect Tal Postelnik Baum brought on executive chef David Berry (formerly of Horseradish Grill), who pulls from his Southern roots to cook Italian cuisine. The menu is an assortment of meat and cheeses, primi, secondi, and panini. Antipasti (3 for $12) is a great way to kick off a meal with, perhaps, the marinated artichokes accented with lemon and swimming in unctuous olive oil. Boards of meat and/or cheese ($14-$16) are loaded with a selection of Italian and locally made products. Kevin Outzs of the Spotted Trotter created a special Finocchiona salami that is only sold at Bellina. Its robust flavor comes from pastured pork, garlic, fennel seeds, and sea salt in natural casing.

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Pasta servings are sizable and prepared with both made in-house noodles and dried Italian varieties. Tagliolini Della Sorellina ($14) comes piping hot (really hot) with eggy pasta ribbons enrobed in a creamy mushroom ragu with meaty portions of seasonal earthy mushrooms.

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There are six Panini options ($12-$13), including a vegetarian version, Funghi ($12), made with mushrooms and a luscious chestnut spread. Porchetta ($12) made with Riverview Farms pork comes on house-made crusty Pane Toscano (think of a Tuscan version of focaccia) with a splash of salsa verde.

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Secondi houses a group of comfort dishes that are suited to the upcoming winter months. Francesina ($16), a traditional meat and onion stew, is made with hunks of tender marinated Brasstown beef served over creamy Anson Mills polenta — a brilliant combo of Italy and the South. Polpette Al Sugo ($12), meatballs stuffed with cheese and punctuated by a bowl of rich and tangy tomato sauce, comes with crunchy bread for sopping.

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Wine may be ordered by the half-glass, glass, or bottle from Bellina's lengthy list of Italian varietals. There is a nice selection of quirky orange wines — white wines produced with the body and tannins of a red and the fruit/minerality of a white. There is also an array of grappas to complete the Italian experience. Beer choices fit the theme, too, with local or Italian beers as options. Cocktails ($9-$12), conceived by Eric Simpkins of the Lawrence, are solid, many with bitter amaro notes. Negronis ($7) flow on tap.

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Bellina Alimentari is a new spot in which to eat salamis as if at a café in Milan or to take tourists for a taste of products from the South. It's more meat, cheese, and pasta than neighbor Brezza, which focuses on seafood, wood-fired pizzas, and greens. A meal at Bellina can be grab-and-go quick (if you are lucky enough to score a table) in the first-come-first-served area or coursed out in the bar area. And you can recreate the experience at home by shopping from the meticulously sourced Italian larder.



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