Classic Italian restaurant, Branzino, 261 S. 17th St., is back in action this year after a fire forced it to close for two years. But judging from the menu and services, that long dormancy didn't cause the restaurant to miss a step.
The elegant but austere atmosphere of the restaurant allows diners to focus on the food without distraction. The menu has shifted into the fall season and offers some pleasant surprises.
When we went, the meal got off to an excellent start with the salmon carpaccio ($16) and the chicken liver crostini ($13), two dishes on opposite ends of the spectrum, but well crafted. The carpaccio was cool and creamy, with pink peppercorns and dill setting off flavorful fireworks throughout the dish. The crostini was earthy and comforting with wilted kale and braised onions balancing out the smooth and savory chicken liver mousse.
Ghost peppers aren't usually something you'd expect to see on a traditional Italian menu, so our curiosity and sense of adventure dictated that we just had to dive into the ghost pepper seafood tortelli ($16/$26). The risk was definitely rewarded. The tender pasta was stuffed with a lovely mixture of scallops and shrimp, all of which somehow stood up to and shone through the formidable heat the ghost peppers brought to the red sauce (don't be too scared, the heat evened out as to not be unnecessarily aggressive). The balance of flavors and the artfully simple composition of the dish was nothing short of pure excellence.
Another strong seafood dish had the diver scallops ($30) perfectly seared and brilliantly complemented by inviting fall flavors thanks to a silky parsnip puree and delightfully roasted mushrooms. A radish confit added a nice and fresh bitter note to the experience when needed.
Branzino's dessert menu had all the usual suspects — tiramisu, panna cotta, gelato, etc. — but one dish that stood out was the Albanian three-milk cake ($10), a sponge cake served up between a later of caramel and hazelnuts above and espresso-infused milk below. The result is sweet enough to hit the spot without feeling too decadent.
Branzino's comeback story and perseverance is something to cheer, but the restaurant's menu and dedication to taste and presentation makes the establishment something special. If you have someone you'd like to impress with traditional but adventurous Italian fare, look no further.
If you go:
261 S. 17th St.
Tue.-Thurs.: 5-10 p.m.
Fri.-Sat. 5-11 p.m.
Sun. 5-9 p.m.