First Look: BoccaLupo (1)
Chef Bruce Logue is back with a cozy new Italian restaurant
There are few restaurants that I've liked as much as La Pietra Cucina, which opened about five years ago. (The restaurant closed briefly in 2012 and later reopened as LPC.) La Pietra's executive chef, Bruce Logue, was once sous chef at Mario Batali's Babbo in New York. Like Batali, Logue's overall inspiration is Italian, but he fiddles with classics by using American, often local ingredients. Call it Italian-American. Just don't think "New-York-style Italian" overdosed with tomato sauce and cheese.
I lunched frequently at La Pietra Cucina and Logue became my favorite chef in town. But the restaurant's look became bizarre. Originally, meals were served in a small and pleasant, sunny dining room off the restaurant's main room, which awaited remodeling. The redo seemed wrong in every way for Logue. It was gloomy, with terra-cotta walls and completely uninteresting paintings. It was far too large. Lunching there felt lonely. Prices made the restaurant a fine-dining venue — in the middle of the recession. Logue disliked the change immensely and long talked about opening a small, informal, and more affordable place of his own.
The day arrived when his frustration took control of his feet and he walked out the door. Thus began his search for a place of his own. That came to an end when Logue attended a party last year at Sauced to celebrate chef/owner Ria Pell's victory on Food Network's "Chopped." He loved the building's retro '50s architecture, its intimate dining room, and large bar. He and investors made an offer and soon took occupancy, naming the new place BoccaLupo. The name is an Italian phrase meaning "in the wolf's mouth," basically an idiom for "good luck."
The restaurant has been remodeled subtly since its days as Sauced. The patio has been enclosed to accommodate more tables, which Logue's reputation will doubtlessly fill. Pell's funny '50s kitsch has been removed and the walls are painted in a creamy taupe.
I've had three meals at the restaurant with about 12 different people, about half of whom had never eaten Logue's cooking. Most were strongly impressed, except for a few who wanted spaghetti and meatballs and recoiled at my recommendation of noodles turned black by squid ink.
The menu, much of which replicates Logue's La Pietra dishes, includes nine antipasti. I've sampled most and my favorite is the skewered octopus and mortadella over white lima-like beans with escarole and a bit of Marsala. Second fave is the bruschetta "banh mi," nicknamed after the Vietnamese sandwich. It's crispy bread layered with slow-cooked pork, chicken liver, and pickled veggies. Another winner is the spring vegetables fried in a light cloud of batter, served with a sharp colatura aïoli with bottarga.
There's prosciutto from Iowa piled on a board with thin flatbread, ricotta, and Logue's addictive pineapple mostarda. My least favorite — predictably many others' favorite — was the fried cauliflower with mint, capers, and Meyer lemon. I simply couldn't pick up the mint.
There are nine pastas. Four are fresh-made and the others are extruded and dried. Logue's signature pasta is the very one that intimidated my friends — the (extruded) black spaghetti topped with house-made Calabrese sausage, red shrimp, and scallions. Just as it does with rice, the squid ink lends a velvety texture. I ate this so many times at La Pietra that I was disinclined to order it, but I'd be remiss not recommending it.
My favorite pasta was the (fresh) "20-yolk tagliatelle" with wild mushrooms and ramp greens. (Yes, it's really made with 20 yolks.) This was the richest, most decadent pasta I remember eating. Ever. The mushrooms up the richness, of course, and it's all left to the ramps to provide some pungent relief. (I remind you that the longtime warnings about eggs and cholesterol have been considerably reduced. Just don't eat eggs for the next three or four days, OK?)
Another decadently rich dish is the crispy-fried lasagna. It's white, made with creamy fontina fonduta. Probably four of us ordered it, and I, the professional eater, was the only one able to consume the entire serving. If you plan to order it, go light on the antipasti or don't eat breakfast and lunch. Or you could skip it altogether and order the bucatini instead. It's mixed with jowl bacon, red onion, a pomodoro sauce, and pecorino.
There are three "not noodles" — secondi — on the menu. I've sampled only the carnaroli risotto with field peas, ramp greens, and American-made Parmesan. It was my least favorite dish. It's not bad. It just doesn't have the blasts of flavor most others have. Another of the three is Logue's grilled branzino with warm caponata and citronette made with blood oranges. I ate that a zillion times at La Pietra and you can't go wrong with it.
You'll find three desserts. My favorite is the pistachio semi-freddo with blueberries and a drizzle of lime caramel, but the zeppole (basically beignets) with a chocolate custard for dipping are especially good for sharing with coffee.
I haven't found anything to seriously complain about at BoccaLupo. Prices are moderate, so don't tell me you can save a lot by insulting your mouth at Olive Garden. You'll spend $13 to $19 for pastas and the "not noodles." Antipasti are all $12 and less and big enough for two. Service is great. I do look forward to seeing Logue dot the menu with some new inventions.