Despite Sicily’s proximity to the Italian mainland — the island is a mere 1.9 miles from the toe of the boot at its nearest point — Sicilian cuisine has never established the toehold in New York that other regional cuisines have. Which is New York’s loss. Sicilian cuisine is vibrant and full of surprises.
You can discover that for yourself by dropping in at Park Slope’s Bella Gioia, which dispenses as reliably authentic and well-crafted renditions of Sicilian dishes as you are apt to find this side of the Atlantic.
Enter to a quirkily designed room with walls of craggy exposed brick and a ceiling to match. Seemingly random patterns of vertical dowels in alternating colors function as room dividers and chair backs. Table tops are cobbled together using slats from wooden packing crates, which lends the space an air of rusticity that carries over into the food.
Witness arancini, fried balls of rice and cheese that arrive hot and utterly greaseless. The tasty morsels are accompanied by a quartet of dipping sauces, among them an addictive garlic puree.
Owner and chef Nico Daniele is committed to tradition, but his training — which includes a stint at the Intentional Culinary Center — prompts him sometimes to veer outside the box. When first-quality beef tenderloin is in the market, he has been known to procure some and convert it into steak tartare, the mound of coarsely minced beef interleaved with micro greens and crowned with a raw quail egg.
Naturally, there is spaghetti cu sarde: the signature dish of Sicily that improbably makes harmony of sardines, raisins, pignoli nuts. But if you come here once, the pasta to order is tumminia, partly for reasons of novelty — Bella Goia is the only restaurant in New York that serves it — but mainly because it is delicious. The dish pairs stout cylinders of buckwheat noodle with an infectious Trapanese-style pesto of tomatoes and almonds, the entirety made creamy through a heavy infusion of caciocavallo cheese.
An immense block of meltingly tender short rib is served ankle-deep in a polished red wine reduction, partnered with a pumpkin puree, braised broccoli rabe, and whole baby onions.
Desserts, by pastry chef Paola de la Cruz Paz, are flights of fancy. Instead of plain old panna cotta, you get a version of the custard here that is infused with chamomile and garnished with dice of glazed pear (peach when the weather is fair), brown butter “powder,” and a hibiscus gelée.
The brownie is one of those insanely rich chocolatey affairs, so dense that light can’t escape. It is served in a bowl that has been lubed with an eighth-of-an-inch layer of caramel alongside a quenelle of corn ice cream (yes corn!). Homemade candied corn gilds the lily.
Considering the overall excellence of the cooking, Bella Gioia is an unparalleled bargain at its current prices: $10 to 14 for starters, $18 to $23 for pastas, $18 to $29 for main courses, and $7 to $12 for dessert.
Bella Gioia, 209 Fourth Avenue (bet. Union and Sackett Sts.), Brooklyn, 347-223-4176