Wonderful red sauce restaurants have splashed the adjoining neighborhoods of Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill and the Columbia Waterfront district for years. Some great ones have closed (I still miss Red Rose) but new efforts in this cuisine category continue to be served up in this specific part of Brooklyn more many than others.
A short distance away, Red Hook is a little less saturated. There are a high number of great restaurants on and around its main drag, but not a ton of Italian.
Fort Defiance is one of those great places. It occupied 365 Van Brunt Street for more than a decade before moving a few doors down and operating in a few different forms before fully reopening last summer. Bar Mario followed, opening at Fort Defiance’s original popular address this past January.
The outline is still recognizable from the corner locale’s previous iteration. The window seats up front are now high tops paired with backless stools upholstered in velvety jewel-toned deep teal. Those line the bar, too, which is a little more open, now absent the former cap of enclosed shelves above the bar that gave the space part of its cabin-like, near-nautical aesthetic. The vintage florals that covered tables are gone, too, and the walls are now a pretty millennial pink with a patina that abstractly recalls mottled clouds and makes the old familiar black-and-white checkered floors pop. The petite dining room is already popular and fills up fast. (Meanwhile, a couple of the outside spots are truly pushing the limit of what’s practically in traffic.) Reservations are not typically formally accepted.
The menu’s similar to other nearby Italian spots even as the environs—the hues, the flashy mod light fixture toward the back, the neon sign emblazoned with the place’s name—seem to say ‘not-your-grandmom’s this-or-that.’ But, what Bar Mario seems to do quite cannily, is sort-of split the difference to appeal to real red sauce devotees, and diners for whom documentation is as important an appeal, all with warm hospitality.
The fritto di calamari and shrimp ($18) loosely coats both and fries them to their proper texture—adding a few halved brussels sprouts to the mostly squid mix. Paradoxically arriving at lightening speed, it seems a little fresher than some competitors, if a little skimpy on the crustacean at two to an order.
Portion sizes overall walk an appropriate line; neither teeming in seeming family-style-for-one fashion like at some NYC classics, nor teeny-tiny at some other notable newcomers. The entrée plating is ultimately satisfying with a few bites extra to share.
An app or an add-on, polpettine al sugo con polenta ($16) comes with three “Mario’s secret meatballs” on a bed of silken grains. Part of the secret is the addition of green peas to the oven-baked, half beef, half pork blend, which arrives tender and moist to the center under a pleasant and understated marinara.
Spaghetti loaded with onions, garlic, capers and anchovies among its litany of ingredients, house-made gnocchi and pici (think of a plumper spaghetti) cacio e pepe, are among the pastas populating tables, mostly hovering around $20. The rigatoni alla fiesolana ($19) is detailed as a dry variety, which signals homemade qualities that add up to a comforting finish. The tubes are prepared to an ideal almost-firmness in a near-creamy sauce just shy of rouge, and kissed with smoked bacon and Parmigiano, cozy in a bowl that feels both simple and like it was dished just for you.
There are enough specials that you have to really pay attention, including a recent duck pappardelle ($28). The waterfowl is curiously mild to the point of being a little hard to identify as anything other than “pretty good protein” in a vacuum, but the accompanying ribbons of wide, yielding noodles are top-notch, even in this sea of South Brooklyn options.
Restaurant desserts puzzlingly disappoint more than often than not, hurtling to the point of why bother, but Bar Mario’s tiramisu could be it’s own whole thing like nearby Steve’s Authentic Key Lime Pie. Heaps of light, airy mascarpone cheese beautifully diffuse its more intense notes of coffee and liqueur. As desserts are the most common items items to share, prepare to get in there quick or order a double.
The Vibe: Cool as grandmom’s parlor, were she an influencer, and twice as warmly welcoming.
The Food: Red sauce-inclined with very good meatballs, comforting rigatoni alla fiesolana and great tiramisu.
The Drinks: Cocktails, wine, beer and zero-ABV.
Bar Mario is located at 365 Van Brunt Street. It is open Wednesday-Friday from 5pm-11pm, Saturday from 2pm-12am and Sunday 2pm-11pm. The kitchen closes at 10:30pm Saturdays, 9:30pm Sundays.