32 Joralemon Street, Brooklyn Heights
Rating: 3 of 5 L's
On the sleepy corner of Joralemon Street and Columbia Place, the bustle of buttoned-up Brooklyn Heights seems worlds away. As you walk west down State Street past the prettily named place blocks—Sidney, Garden, Willow—you may pass a scraggly leashed pit bull, in lieu of a designer dog, or an unassuming middle-aged man smoking a joint on the sidewalk. There's little street traffic here, and a little lawlessness.
The low-lit and rustic River Deli beckons you in with exposed beams on its ceilings, exposed brick on the walls, and a cheerful green and white checkerboard floor. The owners hail from Sardinia and the loud, hot scene inside feels like it could've been imported from an island in the Mediterranean. Between the volume and the language barrier, it's hard to tell if our smiling Italian waiter doesn't understand our questions or doesn't know much about the menu—either way, we're ordering on our own. We don't mind. We've snagged a table in the cozy space behind the bar, an area so secluded and lovely that the couple beside us drags their chairs around to sit caddy-cornered at their two-top, and they proceed to make out all night. They appear to be in their late thirties or early forties, and since we're in such close quarters, we can't help but notice that he's wearing a wedding band and she's not... Scandal!
There's something illicit about the bruschetta ($8), too. The vague menu description doesn't imply that this inexpensive appetizer includes four giant slices of grilled bread, their thick crusts blackened and crisp. One is topped with pepperoni, the second with grilled eggplant and chopped arugula, the third with mozzarella and juicy sliced tomatoes, and another with finely chopped tomatoes over a briny spread. Everything could've used a little punch—a bit more salt, a drizzle of balsamic—but the price is right. You could order this single dish with a glass of Barbera for your mistress ($8) and happily call it a night for under 20 bucks.
The $8 fennel salad was underdressed, but big enough to feed four. Better to drop $10 on River Deli's signature Sardinian entree, malloredus sardi alla Campidanese, house-made curls of fresh pasta in a simple tomato sauce with bits of sausage and Pecorino. The fish of the day, dorade ($19), arrives tail-on and butterflied with perfectly crosshatched grill marks. Though ours was a bit dry, it looked gorgeous paired with garlicky green beans and perfectly crisp-yet-creamy salt-crusted potatoes, all plated on old-country china. You'll want to save room for one more sin—a bowl of the homemade chocolate mousse ($6), sized big enough to share.Photo By Lizz Kuehl