The phrase “true” receives thrown around pretty a chunk inside the culinary international. When Danilo Mongillo, the owner of Strega in Branford, lived in Italy, he changed into a police officer for the Ministry of Agricultural, Food, and Forestry Policies. It became his process to defend the integrity of any product that had “Made in Italy” on the label. Mongillo’s most effective increase vast know-how and appreciation for wine, olive oil, tomatoes, and cheese. However, he constructed connections that make sure when the plane from Italy touches down in New York City every Wednesday, the most straightforward fresh, authentic substances could be making their way up I-95 to Branford.
“Italy is stunning. Italian meals are healthful. It’s gotta be healthy; it’s gotta be clean, it’s gotta be seasonal,” Mongillo says. “The Mediterranean is so loopy. … Every month, nature gives you something.” Mongillo grew up at their family farm, and his parents have been walking a butcher store because of 1979 out of their domestic in a small city inside the province of Benevento. His love of meals and feeding people is palpable. He tugs at his blouse sleeve, saying this fabric may be reasonably-priced and faux, however what you placed inner your body in natural subjects.
Our first experience with Strega is the Monday after Father’s Day, and it is expectedly slow with only some tables occupied within the sixty-five-seat space. This proves to be extremely helpful, as our server spends pretty a piece of time at our desk going over the menu. If you didn’t take a pair of years of Italian in excessive faculty, you could want a pocket translator to get via it. An assortment of small bread, taralli, and olive oil — no butter — is served on a wooden cutting board. Mongillo appears to have a particular disdain for butter. We start with the Fiori di Zucca, tempura squash flora stuffed with ricotta, mozzarella, basil, and tomato alla Puttanesca. It’s mild, sensitive, and easy, and in no manner much like your standard cheese-stuffed fried Italian foods.
The carciofi e finocchio is an artichoke and fennel salad with avocado mousse and coffee-infused mustard dressing. I’m used to a touch crunch, or as a minimum variance in textures, in my salads, but aside from the similarity of each chew, I don’t have any proceedings approximately the freshness or taste. With the first dishes, I become aware of what I’m consuming and feel precise about it. Knowing the origin of the meals and the dedication to great established Mongillo provides the revel in leisure. It’s easy to equate Italian delicacies to red sauce and oily cheese, and that’s been one of the barriers Mongillo has faced due to the fact beginning in 2016. He wishes customers to believe him and chef Marco Giugliano and step out in their consolation quarter.
“People will ask for chook parm. ‘You don’t have any chicken on the menu?’ Not honestly. I imply, 50 cents a pound, what I have to sell? Come on,” Mongillo says. “I don’t experience comfy charging 20 greenbacks for something I gotta pay 50 cents. And it’s just the breast. It’s dry, with no flavor. What do I have to cook? We can cook dinner tuna; we can prepare dinner salmon; we will cook dinner ribeye. I’m a butcher’s son. Could you give me the Angus? Give me the blood.” The following path is while Mongillo and Giugliano’s skills genuinely shine, and you also realize the accolades from Gambero Rosso are adequately deserved. (Strega is the first Connecticut eating place recognized via the Rome-based authority on Italian meals and wine.)
After one chunk, the rigatoni alla Genovese joins the list of quality dishes I’ve ever had. Freshly made al dente rigatoni is accompanied by an onion-primarily based sauce — the taste is akin to a famous French onion soup — with sluggish-cooked Angus New York strip loin. I might advocate in opposition to sharing this with dining companions. Forks can be flying in your direction till the plate is smooth. In addition to being the proprietor and supervisor, Mongillo is also the pizzaiolo. We opt for the Paesana with fior di latte cheese, Sicilian caponata, and cured pork belly.
Mongillo receives to work on the Neapolitan-fashion pie in the front of the timber-fired oven in undeniable sight of the dining room. Sixty seconds at 900 levels later, we’re offered a light, ethereal, perfect private pizza. This is thin but sturdy sufficient to support its toppings. There’s a slight char; however, it’s now not burnt or crispy, and the areas darkened by the fireplace still taste like crust, not an ember. Giugliano is likewise in charge of the desserts, and the tiramisu and deconstructed cannoli each meet the bar formerly raised using the whole lot we’d already loved. The cocktails are fresh and engaging but not overly strong. That’s a criticism or praise, relying on your outlook.
Fully inspired after our incognito go to, I reached out to talk with Mongillo, and he invited us to return for a complimentary tasting. Imagine traveling to a beautiful area you’ve in no way been to earlier than. It’s top-notch; you adore it. Then you move returned a 2d time, but now you have a nearby tour manual that shows you all the excellent spots. Even higher. Strega is packed on a Thursday night, and the same first-rate server who took care of folks on the primary ride is with us once more.
After us, the human beings are talking Italian, and while she returns to our desk, she starts speakme in her first language earlier than catching herself. It’s a fascinating second, and we share amusing. The tasting lasts nearly three hours and consists of seven publications, with Mongillo expertly pairing wines for us along the way. It begins with a 2nd spherical of squash flora (as good as the first round), accompanied by a refreshingly precise shrimp and watermelon salad and then some lightly fried eggplant with cheese,’ nduja (spreadable pork salumi), tomato mousse, and basil powder.