The word “authentic” receives thrown around pretty a chunk inside the culinary global. When Danilo Mongillo, the owner of Strega in Branford, lived in Italy, he turned into a police officer for the Ministry of Agricultural, Food, and Forestry Policies. His task was to protect the integrity of any product that had “Made in Italy” on the label.
Not handiest did Mongillo expand vast know-how and appreciation for wine, olive oil, tomatoes, and cheese. However, he built connections that ensure whilst the aircraft from Italy touches down in New York City each Wednesday, the best clean, genuine substances will be making their way up I-ninety-five to Branford. “Italy is lovely. Italian food is healthful. It’s gotta be wholesome; it’s gotta be fresh, it’s gotta be seasonal,” Mongillo says. “The Mediterranean is so loopy. … Every month, nature gives you something.”
Mongillo grew up at the own family farm, and his parents were running a butcher store considering that 1979 out of their domestic in a small city in the province of Benevento. His love of food and feeding humans is palpable. He tugs at his blouse sleeve, announcing this fabric may be cheap and fake; however, what you placed inside your frame clearly subjects.
Our first trip to Strega is the Monday after Father’s Day, and it is expectedly slow, with only some tables occupied inside the 65-seat space. This proves to be extremely beneficial, as our server spends pretty a bit of time at our table going over the menu. If you didn’t take a pair of Italian years in excessive college, you might want a pocket translator to get via it.
An assortment of small pieces of bread, taralli, and olive oil — no butter — is served on a timber reducing board. Mongillo appears to have a particular disdain for butter. We start off with the Fiori di Zucca, tempura squash flora filled with ricotta, mozzarella, basil, and tomato alla Puttanesca. It’s mild, delicate, and clean, and in no way much like your traditional cheese-crammed fried Italian ingredients.
The carciofi e finocchio is an artichoke and fennel salad with avocado mousse and coffee-infused mustard dressing. I’m used to a little crunch, or at the least variance in textures, in my salads; however, apart from every bite’s similarity, I have no lawsuits about the freshness or flavor.
I find myself becoming aware of what I’m consuming and feeling excellent about it with the first dishes. Knowing the starting place of the meals and the commitment to fine validated using Mongillo amuses the revel in. It’s smooth to equate Italian delicacies to red sauce and oily cheese, and that’s been one of the obstacles Mongillo has faced due to the fact starting in 2016. He needs clients to believe him and chef Marco Giugliano and step out of their comfort sector.
“People will ask for fowl parm. ‘You don’t have any hen on the menu?’ Not truly. I imply, 50 cents a pound, what I gotta promote? C’mon,” Mongillo says. “I don’t feel relaxed charging 20 bucks for something I gotta pay 50 cents. And it’s just the breast. It’s dry, with no taste. What I gotta cook? We can cook tuna; we will prepare dinner salmon; we will prepare dinner ribeye. I’m a butcher’s son. Could you give me the Angus? Give me the blood.”
The subsequent path is whilst Mongillo and Giugliano’s capabilities in reality shine, and you realize the accolades from Gambero Rosso are well deserved. (Strega is the first Connecticut restaurant identified through the Rome-based totally authority on Italian meals and wine.) After one chew, the rigatoni alla Genovese joins the list of first-rate dishes I’ve ever had. Freshly made al dente rigatoni is followed via an onion-primarily based sauce — the flavor is similar to a wonderful French onion soup — with gradual-cooked Angus New York strip loin. I might suggest sharing this with dining companions. Forks may be flying on your path until the plate is easy.
In addition to being the owner and manager, Mongillo is likewise the pizzaiolo. We choose the Paesana with fior di latte cheese, Sicilian caponata, and cured pork belly. Mongillo gets to work at the Neapolitan-style pie in the front of the wooden-fired oven in the undeniable sight of the dining room. Sixty seconds at 900 stages later, we’re provided with a mild, airy, ideal personal pizza that is thin but sturdy sufficient to guide its toppings. There’s a mild char. However, it’s no longer burnt or crispy, and the areas darkened using the fire nonetheless flavor like crust, no longer an ember.
Giugliano is also in the cake rate, and the tiramisu and deconstructed cannoli both meet the bar formerly raised by way of the whole lot we’d already enjoyed. The cocktails are clean and tasty, however now not overly sturdy. That’s a complaint or a compliment, depending on your outlook.
After our incognito visit, I am fully inspired to talk with Mongillo, and he invitations us again for a complimentary tasting. Imagine touring to a stunning region you’ve by no means been to before. It’s exceptional; you like it. Then you pass returned a second time, but now you’ve got a nearby tour manual which shows you all of the pleasant spots. Even better.