If Italian food has indeed conquered the world, as John Mariani maintains in his new book, it was Italian-American cuisine that first stormed the beaches of country after country with its irresistible flavors. Unfortunately, what began as the shock and awe of savory saltimboccas and arrabiatas soon drowned the competition (and its own culinary history) in a sea of red sauce. So much so that, by the 1970s (as Mariani also points out), America was awash in meatball mediocrity. Against this tide of weary ragus and morose manicottis, there have always been a few keepers of the fettucine flame who take the time to do such classics proud, and Henderson is now lucky to have one of those in its backyard.
“The secret,” Carla Pellegrino, former top toque at Rao’s, tells me, “is in the ingredients. It’s easier to use inferior pastas, meats, tomatoes and cheeses, but you can really taste the difference.” She’s right, of course, and she and her chef/sister Alessandra Madeira and brother-in-law Walter Ciccione have launched Bratalian as their ode to the cooking cantinas of Naples—right down to the underwear hanging from the rafters—and the food those Italians brought to the New World.
Your first clue of the pride these Brazilian-Italians take in those recipes comes from a simple pasta e fagioli soup. Dense, earthy and rich with the flavor of cannellini beans and pasta, it’s a 50-50 mix of its two main ingredients, neither too thick nor too thin, and a perfect rendition of an oft-abused staple of peasant cooking. Next, the deceptively simple spaghetti al’aglio e olio (spaghetti with garlic and oil), simmered ever-so-slowly so the garlic oozes flavor into the oil while becoming almost sticky sweet (garlic candy if you will), infusing the dish with intensity without offense.
- Bratalian Neapolitan Cantina
- 10740 S. Eastern Ave.
- Tue-Sun, 11:45 a.m. to 3 p.m. & 5-10:30 p.m.
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As to that red sauce, unlike so many inferior versions, it tastes like fresh tomatoes (or at least freshly canned San Marzano tomatoes), rather than something simmered into acrid oblivion, and like at Rao’s, is used to accent, not overwhelm, the flavors of the pastas or proteins. As I’m biting into an exemplary chicken Parmigiana, after polishing off two sparkling salads—seafood and tuna with baby lima beans and onions—I’m reminded of what both Mariani and Pellegrino have preached many times: “There’s nothing difficult about Italian-American food, but you have to have pride in what you’re doing and take the time to do it right.” Too many Italian restaurants do neither, but Bratalian is doing both.