The first of NYC Chef/Restaurateur Andrew Carmellini’s eateries to reach Brooklyn’s shores offers declarative Southern Italian cuisine in a casually elegant setting
by Christine Siracusa
Leuca is a self-described “neighborhood restaurant” on the ground floor of Brooklyn’s newest full-service boutique hotel, The William Vale, and the latest expansion of Chef Andrew Carmellini’s NoHo Hospitality Group empire (which includes Locanda Verde and Lafayette). Executive Chef Anthony Ricco sees his dining room as a place where anyone can “come and get a great pizza during lunch or Eggs Benedict with Hollandaise for breakfast.” Indeed it’s hard to imagine the sort of person who wouldn’t be comfortable here. The front bar area is open and relaxed, the main room’s combination of tables and cozy booths create an atmosphere that’s inviting and unpretentious, yet still upscale.
My fellow diners on a cool spring evening were fairly representative of Leuca’s typical clientele. There was a group of about 20 professional colleagues in a private room off the main dining room, who sat at long tables sharing antipasti and larger format dishes served family-style. Then there was a family to my left with a young child sharing a pizza…most likely guests of the Vale. (As someone who travels regularly with children, I appreciate a restaurant on the premises that can both accommodate my kids and satisfy my taste buds.) To my right was a couple that looked to be in their 40s, and I heard them tell their waiter that they used to live in the neighborhood. Once I tasted the food, I couldn’t help but wonder if they were regretting their choice to leave. Located in a rare sliver of Williamsburg that’s not already swamped with dining choices, it seems likely that Leuca serves plenty of local residents on a daily basis.
The layout boasts a spacious, well-appointed bar. (Perhaps those who don’t gain access to The Westlight, the Vale’s über-chic rooftop bar with sweeping views of Manhattan, can consider consoling themselves with a beverage downstairs.) Its menu offers eight signature cocktails and a nicely balanced wine list, almost all of which hail from southern Italy. My pre-dinner concoction, the Fellini Reference, was a tart and refreshing mix of tequila, amaro, Campari, citrus, and allspice dram.
In general, the food here doesn’t pull any punches. If the dish contains chilis or calls itself Calabrian, expect it to bring the heat. If it contains rosemary or oregano, expect more than a hint. This is not to say it’s unbalanced, but it ain’t shy, either.
According to Ricco (and many online reviews), the most popular dish is the Sheep’s Milk Ricotta with Hot Honey and Garlic so, naturally, I was eager to try it. This plate falls into a category called “La Scarpett’s”—Southern Italian dips served with pane Siciliano. This one is made of smooth and creamy whipped ricotta cheese peppered with crispy slivers of savory garlic and drizzled with sweet and spicy hot honey. The cheese is quite rich and is meant to be spread generously on a slice of bread. It is also easily shareable, as you’re going to want at least one small plate before the main meal. Other choices for this course include Chickpea Pugliese with bottarga and parsley, Italian Butter Bean with wild mushroom sott’aceto, and Smoky Eggplant with basil and onion condimento.
For antipasti, I chose the Tuna Crudo, with green olives, chili and crispy farro, and it was my favorite taste of the evening—expertly sliced sashimi-grade tuna drizzled with hot chili oil and topped with fresh basil and sliced green Castelvetrano olives (this writer’s favorite.) On top are some impossibly thin strands of bresaola (airdried, salted beef) and crunchy grains of farro. This is quite a unique dish which packs an appropriate amount of heat so… drink accordingly. Other intriguing options in this category include Fennel Salad with apple and pecorino dressing, Smoked Beets with pistachio and ricotta salad, and the Bone Marrow alla Vaccinara.
My pasta choice, the Bucatini Calabrese with clams and oregano, was the next and final (I thought) event of the evening. This is one of the three spring dishes recently added to Leuca’s menu, along with the Uncle Gus (a wood-fired white pizza with artichokes) and the Artichoke Ravioli. For the Bucatini, fresh Manila clams are steamed in garlic, white wine, and Calabrian chili paste until they open. Then the house-made bucatini is tossed in, along with some chili butter (cutter, Calabrian chili paste, Sicilian tomato paste, and lemon) until perfectly al dente. Then it’s plated and topped with oreganota bread crumbs. This meal was accompanied by my first taste of Etna Rosso, a light Sicilian red. Its fruity, earthy character along with a slight chill made it the perfect partner to the bold Calabrian dish. Other pastas include Malfadini with rapini pesto and sweet & sour peppers and the Black Shells with ruby shrimp and local calamari.
I attempted to decline dessert, but Chef Ricco wouldn’t hear of it and, thus, the Citrus Surpriso arrived at my table. As the name may suggest, it’s a layered treat that delights and surprises at every turn. The first layer reminded me of lemon Italian ice, with shards of melt-in-your-mouth meringue hidden throughout. Keep going and you’ll discover a layer of creamy panna cotta, followed by mandarin sorbetto at the center with a little citrus granita at the bottom. Light. Refreshing. Perfetto.
My sole regret is not having the stomach (literally) to try a pizza or a specialità della casa, both of which come from the woodfired grill. The Whole Orata alla Piastra and the Lamb Arrosto with farro verde and favetta are particularly intriguing.
Ah, well. Next time.
The upcoming summer menu is still being developed, but Chef says we can expect a lot more vegetables. Foremost on his mind? Tomatoes (as one might expect.) He plans to take full advantage of area farmer’s markets and keep buying as local as possible. Knowing our markets, this should present no challenge whatsoever.
111 N 12th Street at The William Vale hotel
718.581.5900 / leuca.com