You will always see Victor Rallo, owner of Birravino in Red Bank and Undici Taverna Rustica in Rumson, wearing an Italian newsboy cap. He owns 100 of them and they have become his trademark. On a recent visit to Birravino (the name is a combination of beer and wine in Italian), he regaled us with stories of his travels to Italy (he has been there 50 to 60 times), the people he has met, his extensive knowledge of food and wine and his TV show eat! drink! Italy! with Vic Rallo seen on Public TV. His show is taped in Italy, where he interviews and cooks or drinks with prominent winemakers and artisan food producers. Season 3 will air in September and can be seen locally on WNET, NJIT and WLIW. Season 1 and 2 are online. Rallo is a true Renaissance man.
BIRRAVINO, RED BANK
Mangia is the mantra here. We started with crunchy potato croquettes, which Rallo told us is street food in Naples. Baked potatoes are scooped out, combined with onions and some slivers of prosciutto, rolled into a ball and fried; it was hard to just have one. Mozzarella made two hours before it hit our palates was served with house-roasted peppers in olive oil and saba, a cooked wine, along with ciabatta toast smeared with a spicy ceci spread; a luxurious dish. Next was a beautiful presentation of flower-shaped prosciutto di parma with fresh fava beans, Pecorino Romano and mint, which we were told is a Roman spring traditional dish.
Pastas are made in house. A spaghetti con cozze with fresh mussels (some taken out of their shells) and tomato, garlic, olive oil and fish broth was exceptional in that the seafood broth could be tasted in the al dente pasta. Strozzopretti Bolognese with equal amounts of beef, veal and pork also contained Italian tomatoes and fennel. It was topped with whipped mascarpone creating a rich, full-bodied dish.
Salsiccia Grigliata—grilled Italian sweet and hot sausage, whole frying pepper, onions and potatoes—an old school Italian dish, was lusty with the heat from the hot sausage embracing the other ingredients. Melanzane alla parmigiana was prepared with layered eggplant, scarmozza, an Italian cow’s milk cheese, similar to mozzarella but firmer with a more distinct flavor, Pecorino Romano, and tomato sauce. It was paired with sautéed spinach, olive oil and garlic. Both passed the Safersteins’ test and we would not hesitate to order again. An amalgam of roasted eggplant, tomatoes, capers and olives was attractively nested on top of a gorgeous hunk of cod; we loved it.
Think we were ready for dessert by this point? Of course, and since Birravino has a pastry chef, we needed to see if the sweets were worth the calories. They were. A deconstructed cannoli was layered with pastry, similar to a napoleon and filled with homemade cannoli cream and drizzled with caramel. We fought over the last bite of the Nutella-filled, white-chocolate macadamia cookies topped with mascarpone in which a slab of peanut brittle rested.
It was no surprise that Birravino has an all-Italian wine list with options ranging from $25 to $50, as well as house-brewed ales and beers available in 14- or 24-ounce mugs and bottled beers from the U.S., Germany, Italy and Belgium.
The restaurant has an industrial look with brick walls, beamed ceilings, prosciutto hanging from rafters, fresh vegetables in baskets and an open kitchen. We were there very early on a Saturday night and the high tops and tables were filled. Make a reservation. And if you see Signore Rallo, the man wearing the newsboy cap, say ciao before you chow and then mangia! Open for lunch and dinner daily.
Pasta with mussels.
Eggplant and spinach.
Photos courtesy of Lowell Saferstein
183 Riverside Avenue