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Italian sojourn

Cobble Hill’s Bocca Lupo wine bar triggers memories of Venice — and a hangover

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Recently, so many small-plate eateries have opened that places serving appetizers, entrees and desserts are starting to look inspired. Now add one more to the list of multi-course places: Bocca Lupo, an Italian “enoteca” in Cobble Hill.

However, this “wine bar” differs from other small plate eateries in the area. Instead of serving smallish dishes that are far larger than their Italian counterparts — with wine to complement the dishes — Bocca Lupo (a phrase meaning “mouth of the wolf,” which dates back to Rome’s mythical creators Romulus and Remus) is really a traditional “enoteca.”

You can certainly enjoy a meal here, but wine — which is poured with a heavy hand — is the big draw. And there’s a lethal hot drink, too, called a “toasted almond,” that left me feeling like I’d partied long and hard with Danny DeVito and George Clooney.

Bocca Lupo also offers a version of an aperitif that I haven’t stumbled on since a 2005 jaunt to Venice; here it’s called an “Aperol and orange.” Aperol is an Italian liqueur made with bitter orange, gentian and rhubarb. At Bocca Lupo, the drink is made with fresh-squeezed orange juice, and the liquor’s uniquely bitter, herbaceous flavor balances the fruit’s sweetness. In Venice, the bartenders serve a “Spritz” — Aperol with Prosecco (sparkling white wine), a large green olive and a slice of orange. The Venetian combination is much drier than this version, but both are enjoyable.

Sipping wine at the long wood counter that runs along one glass wall of the corner space is an appealing way to while away an hour or two, as is sitting at one of the tables in the industrial chic room. But be warned. In July, when owner Jeff Lederman launched the place, the room was luxuriously breezy with the doors open and the cement floor cool underfoot. In December, chilly air seeps through the door and clings to the flooring, so don’t pull a Britney Spears and show up “au naturel.” You’ll want your panties on, as well as warm jeans and footwear.

Lederman, who also owns Nectar juice bar on Court Street, and his attentive, professional waitstaff go a long way towards warming up the place. He stops by tables to chat up guests and offer tastes of new wines. The extensive list of Italian bottles is varied and well priced with glasses ranging from $6 to $9.50 (the Montepulciano, the Cannonau and the Lagrein are steals at $6, $7 and $9 respectively) and an eclectic selection of bottles begins at $25.

Ken Tufo (formerly of Maremma, Veritas, DB Moderne and Industry in Manhattan) divides the menu into four categories: Antipasti and “insalata” (salad); bruschetta (grilled Italian bread with topping); “tramezzini” (untoasted sandwiches on crustless white bread); and panini (grilled sandwiches on crusty bread). The plates are meant to be shared; one or two diners get a few bites each. The dish size conforms to the Italian norm with dessert being the only exception: Two or more diners could share one finale and feel like they’ve had a full serving.

An antipasti of “sizzling scampi diavolo,” five big, plump shrimp served in a lemon-scented, hot oil bath that’s heavily imbued with garlic, was the best of the bunch we tried. Slices of grilled Italian bread sop up the sauce once the sweet shrimp are gobbled up.

Several of the bruschetta make terrific beginnings to the meal. The eggplant spread was tart and nutty-tasting with crumbles of ricotta salata adding a salty tang. Goat cheese added creaminess to a fricassee of buttery, sauteed crimini, oyster and button mushrooms; and slightly spicy sausage is tamed by the freshness of fennel and sweetened with caramelized onions.

Antipasti of razor thin slices of roast pork loin suffered from ice-cold temperature and a bland “tonnato” (in this case, a not-so-tart tuna sauce).

We tried the panini for dessert. Tufo fills thin slices of bread with the hazelnut spread, Nutella, and pieces of ripe banana, then grills it into crisp, gooey triangles. It’s kiddie food — chocolate and sweet, crunchy and buttery; a big fluff of whipped cream just adds to the deliciousness.

A chewy, not-too-sweet brownie torte crowned with a delicate chocolate mousse and sprinkled with peanuts sounds like cocoa overkill, but both components were just sweet enough.

And, like a beige room brightened with a hot pink pillow, a mundane circle of cheesecake was given a spark from a compote of rich plum halves and wine.

About that “toasted almond”: It looks like an innocent cup of steaming hot chocolate crowned with a cherry. Beneath the fluff is vodka and Kahlua swirled into a creamy syrup that goes down too easily.

At Bocca Lupo you can try a little wine, or a lot of wine, or a small plate of this or several plates of that. You can linger for hours or be out the door in minutes. It’s all very casual, very Italian and just right for Brooklyn.

Bocca Lupo (391 Henry St. at Warren Street in Cobble Hill) accepts American Express, MasterCard and Visa. Small plates: $5–$13. The restaurant serves lunch and dinner daily. Brunch is available on the weekends, from 10:30 am to 4 pm. Subway: F to Bergen Street. For more information, call (718) 243-2522.
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