190 Dean St, Boerum Hill
Rating: 5 out of 5 L's
A party of 17 is huddled at the long communal table in the center of Rucola's tightly packed dining room. Over high-volume conversations, glasses clink with thirty-something birthday toasts. The lights are so low that pretty women glow like Ingrids and Gretas and Claudettes through a Vaseline-smeared lens. Couples lean over the two-tops that line the wall and swap drinks—a swig of Sixpoint ($7) in a wide mug for a sip of the Acadian cocktail ($11), a nuanced concoction of rye, absinthe and sloe gin with piney rosemary, sweet honey and a bright squirt of lemon.
Rucola's name is Italian for "arugula." Their eponymous salad is tossed in a celery-seed vinaigrette with shaved radishes and Parmigiano ($9), but don't let the greens get between you and the crudo ($11). Like-buttah Bronzino gets a punch from pickled green tomatoes and a crunch from salty sunflower seeds. The dish is scattered with fresh mint and drizzled with fruity Ligurian olive oil—a luxe first course for a residential corner in Boerum Hill. For a pasta course or light dinner, the house-made mini-shells ($14) are tossed with a garlicky tomato sauce and tiny pieces of salt cod that taste like little bites of the ocean. Main courses include perfectly cooked cod ($20) over a spicy and jammy stew of tomatoes, firm chickpeas, and plump mussels. Braised Swiss chard, roasted baby turnips, and sweet cherries complement a hearty portion of juicy duck ($20). The cookie plate for dessert ($6) makes for a light and sweet finish but lacks the sophistication of the dishes that precede it. Next time we'll check out the ricotta pudding. (Note to cookie lovers: Chestnut on Smith Street still has the best cookie plate in town.)
The elements of this place have been visited before—the barroom sceney-ness, the fine and fresh Northern Italian fare, the frequently changing menu, the complicated house cocktails—but the warmth of the staff at Rucola makes the overall feel of the restaurant greater than the sum of its parts. As we waited briefly for a table, servers made small talk with patrons seated out front. Late on a crushing Friday night, our waitress was all smiles, seeming genuinely excited about the daily specials. On the way out, when I was already smitten with the place, the host complimented my sundress (ok, I'm sold!). Rucola's doors are almost always open (they only close for dinner on Mondays), and their neighborhoody friendliness begs for you to go for wine and snacks with friends, for their coffee and breakfast service on weekday mornings, for lunch and for brunch.
Photo Bobbi Marchand