In late-’90s Brooklyn, before the rise of chef’s counters and roof gardens, the trailblazing seasonal restaurant Saul brought Manhattan-style white-tablecloth dining across the East River, kicking off a new restaurant row on Smith Street. In the 14 years since his flagship opened, chef-owner Saul Bolton has taken more chances elsewhere in the borough, like the spartan block of Prospect Heights where he launched the Vanderbilt in 2009. Earlier this year, Red Gravy, his new Italian venture, popped up on the edge of Brooklyn Heights—another stretch without many great restaurants.
The spot’s debut hasn’t been entirely smooth: The vast space could be cozier, the vibe inside warmer—a slammed hostess sniped at diners one night, quoting much-longer-than-accurate waits; and a distracted barkeep passed over patrons hoping to eat at the bar. But despite its shaky service and casual decor—wine barrels to lean on and bare wooden tables—Bolton’s trattoria serves serious food with prices to match.
The chef, who worked at Le Bernardin and Bouley before making the leap to Kings County, isn’t an Italian obsessive, but he’s hired a lieutenant who is, A Voce veteran Ayesha Nurdjaja. Together they’re sending out some of the neighborhood’s most vivacious high-end Italian cuisine.
Bolton and his team layer on flavors, building real depth as they go. And so there are meaty medallions of braised octopus, charred on the grill and paired with bitter singed escarole, a punchy green-olive puree and bright salmoriglio (lemon-garlic chutney).
Pastas are as complex, nuanced and distinctive. House-made reginetti—chestnut-flour ridged ribbons—come bathed in a rich, buttery hunter’s ragù, spun from tender rabbit punctuated with tangy preserved lemon and salty prosciutto. Calamarata, semolina rings stained black from squid ink, are fiery from melted nduja (a sort of loose pepperoni) with plump shrimp, crisp bread crumbs, and the Moorish perfume of bergamot, orange and mint.
Red Gravy’s crowd of yuppie brownstoners might not think twice about the high cost of a meal—entrées all hover near the $30 mark—but there’s value in the abundance and flair you’ll find on most plates. A beautiful seasonal dish features smoked, roasted beets and a pair of crisp-skinned branzino fillets topped in freshly shaved horseradish, all perched on a stripe of smeared beet puree. A monster pork chop, though thick as dictionary, isn’t quite so impressive, the straightforward grilled meat simply served on dull cranberry-bean stew.
Daily specials, delivering a downscale change of pace, pay homage to the restaurant’s name and the borough’s old-school Italian-American fare. The excellent, potent four-meat Sunday gravy—tiny meatballs, fat lamb ribs, pork sausage and short-rib braciola, all slow-cooked with tomato, fennel and onion—is a big, generous meal, thick sauce on hollow paccheri on one plate, all the meat artfully stacked on another.
But the desserts—more in line with the troublesome service and space—are a flat-out disaster: Chocolate-chip panna cotta jiggles like Jell-O, pistachio cake is mealy and dense. Yet Bolton’s new place is, overall, a big boon to its neighborhood—after all, the Brooklyn food boom didn’t reach the whole borough at once.
Eat this: Octopus with escarole, reginetti with rabbit sugo, calamarata with nduja and shrimp, branzino with smoked beets, Sunday gravy
Drink this: Among the Italian-accented riffs on classic cocktails, try the bitter-smooth Whiskey Skiffler, featuring Cynar, sweet vermouth and rye, or the Waymaker, a frothy take on a whiskey sour with egg white and a touch of amaro (both $11). The all-Italian wine list includes some good bargains, like an earthy Felline Primitivo, a peppery red from Puglia ($35).
Conversation piece: In addition to his three Brooklyn restaurants, Saul Bolton operates a sausage business, Brooklyn Bangers, which sells its products at the Barclays Center and the Brooklyn Flea, and supplies the Italian links served at Red Gravy.
By Jay Cheshes