The word “authentic” receives thrown around quite a piece within the culinary world. When Danilo Mongillo, the proprietor of Strega in Branford, lived in Italy, he turned into a police officer for the Ministry of Agricultural, Food, and Forestry Policies. It becomes his process to guard the integrity of any product that had “Made in Italy” on the label.
Not handiest did Mongillo broaden full-size know-how and appreciation for wine, olive oil, tomatoes, and cheese. However, he built connections that make certain. Simultaneously, the aircraft from Italy touches down in New York City every Wednesday, handiest sparkling; actual ingredients may be making their manner up I-95 to Branford. “Italy is beautiful. Italian food is wholesome. It’s gotta be healthy; it’s gotta be fresh, it’s gotta be seasonal,” Mongillo says. “The Mediterranean is so crazy. … Every month, nature gives you something.”
Mongillo grew up on the family farm, and his dad and mom had been walking a butcher shop when you consider that 1979 out of their home in a small town within the province of Benevento. His love of meals and feeding human beings is almost palpable. He tugs at his shirt sleeve, announcing this material may be reasonably-priced and faux, but what you placed inside your body truely subjects.
Our first journey to Strega is the Monday after Father’s Day, and it’s far expectedly sluggish with only a few tables occupied within the 65-seat area. This proves to be extraordinarily beneficial, as our server spends pretty a piece of time at our desk going over the menu. If you didn’t take a couple of Italian years in high school, you could need a pocket translator to get through it.
A collection of small bread, taralli, and olive oil — no butter — is served on a timber slicing board. Mongillo seems to have a selected disdain for butter. We start with the Fiori di Zucca, tempura squash plants filled with ricotta, mozzarella, basil, and tomato alla Puttanesca. It’s mild, sensitive, and smooth, and in no manner, much like your traditional cheese-stuffed fried Italian ingredients.
The carciofi e finocchio is an artichoke and fennel salad with avocado mousse and coffee-infused mustard dressing. I’m used to a bit crunch, or at the least a variance in textures, in my salads, but aside from each chunk’s similarity, I don’t have any lawsuits approximately the freshness or flavor.
With the primary dishes, I locate myself, becoming conscious of what I’m eating and feeling good about it. Knowing the beginning of the food and the commitment to exceptional demonstrated by Mongillo adds to the revel in the leisure. It’s easy to equate Italian delicacies to the pink sauce and oily cheese, and that’s been one of the barriers Mongillo has faced seeing that beginning in 2016. He needs clients to agree with him and chef Marco Giugliano and step out in their comfort sector.
“People will ask for fowl parm. ‘You don’t have any hen on the menu?’ Not definitely. I suggest 50 cents a pound; what I gotta sell? C’mon,” Mongillo says. “I don’t sense relaxed charging 20 dollars for something I gotta pay 50 cents. And it’s just the breast. It’s dry, with no taste. What I gotta cook dinner? We can cook dinner tuna; we can cook dinner salmon; we can cook ribeye. I’m a butcher’s son. Could you give me the Angus? Give me the blood.”
The subsequent course is when the abilties of Mongillo and Giugliano clearly shine, and you recognize the accolades from Gambero Rosso are properly deserved. (Strega is the first Connecticut restaurant diagnosed using the Rome-based authority on Italian meals and wine.) After one chew, the rigatoni alla Genovese joins the listing of the best dishes I’ve ever had. Freshly made, an onion-primarily-based sauce follows al dente rigatoni — the flavor corresponds to an awesome French onion soup — with slow-cooked Angus New York strip loin. I could advocate against sharing this with eating companions. Forks will be flying in your direction until the plate is smooth.
In addition to being the owner and manager, Mongillo is likewise the pizzaiolo. We opt for the Paesana with fior di latte cheese, Sicilian caponata, and cured beef stomach. Mongillo receives paintings on the Neapolitan-style pie in front of the wooden-fired oven in the eating room’s undeniable sight. Sixty seconds at 900 stages later, we’re supplied with a light, ethereal, best private pizza that is skinny yet robust sufficient to support its toppings. There’s a slight char. However, it’s now not burnt or crispy, and the areas darkened via the fire nonetheless taste like crust, not an ember.
Giugliano is likewise in the rate of the desserts, and the tiramisu and deconstructed cannoli each meet the bar previously raised through the whole lot we’d already enjoyed. The cocktails are sparkling and attractive but now not overly sturdy. That’s a complaint or a compliment, relying on your outlook.
Fully inspired after our incognito visit, I reach out to speak with Mongillo, and he invitations we returned for a complimentary tasting. Imagine touring to a stunning area you’ve by no means been to earlier than. It’s notable; you adore it. Then you go back a 2d time, but now you have a neighborhood tour manual that shows you all the nice spots. Even better.