Few restaurants can achieve excellence through so much contradiction, but Osteria Il Paiolo just might be one of those establishments. The rustic-yet-modern interior, with exposed brick and air ducts running across the ceiling, is set to a soundtrack of classic rock; the wood-burning oven (turning out fresh-baked breads) and meat slicer suggest traditional Italian food, while the menu suggests otherwise. "Il Paiolo" translates to "the copper pot", which explains the copper signage out in front of this lovely Osteria, but it also refers to a Northern Italian polenta dish made in a paiolo. The grand opening of Osteria Il Paiolo was Saturday, but the owners, Alex and Amanda Palumbo, had a few neighborhood locals (like myself) in for a tasting on Friday.
Hopefully taking some attention away from Sea, Osteria Il Paiolo is located on North 6th street between Berry and Wythe in Williamsburg. I brought my friend Hal with me to this tasting, because not only does he enjoy a good meal, but he also complains that I never take him anywhere. Owner Alex Palumbo (former manager of iconic Da Silvano in NYC for five years) greeted us warmly at the door and we were seated promptly in the back near the wood-burning oven. The smell of bread baking was both enjoyable and torturous at the same time. Fortunately, we were presented with a basket of fresh bread and olive oil rather quickly; the olive oil was so rich it was almost green, and the bread was still slightly warm.
The first round of tastings came to the table: Vitello Tonnato (thinly sliced veal round in a tuna sauce with capers), Bruschetta Classica, Salsiccia E Verza (homemade sausage with savoy cabbage baked in wood burning oven), and an assortment of sliced meats and cheeses served on a piece of brown butcher paper. Everything was very good, but the bruschetta and sausage exceeded my expectations. I know what you're thinking though - how can you have expectations for bruschetta? You can't really, but you can make it satisfactory, or you can make it exemplary. The bread was crunchy, still a little warm, and had a generous dousing of olive oil on top of the fresh vine-ripe tomatoes and onions. Perfection. Now the baked sausage was delicious and fell apart with the gentle poke of a fork, but it's best asset was the sauce it's baked in. With savory ribbons of cabbage and spinach running through it, it's one of those thin (but not watery), tomato sauces that's perfect for dipping bread in.
Osteria Il Paiolo makes their pasta in-house, so naturally, we had to try a few of their specialties: Tagliatelle Bolognese and Gnocchi All'aragosta (lobster gnocchi). My personal preference was the lobster gnocchi (and Hal's as well), because it just so happens that my mom makes the best bolognese sauce, so I refuse to order it anywhere. I'm not kidding I think she should bottle the stuff. Anyway, this one wasn't bad by any means, and the pasta was good, but I felt it needed a little salt. The lobster in the gnocchi was great, and I liked the gnocchi, but between the two pastas I think I liked the tagliatelle better. The only thing I was disappointed about was we didn't get a taste of the Pappardelle al Cioccolato, chocolate pappardelle pasta with wild boar ragu and vegetables. Chocolate pasta? It's either one of those amazing creations you never saw coming, or a total abomination. I'd love to find out…
For the third course we had Polenta e Osei, which is polenta with quails in a tomato sauce. The polenta was carefully spread on our plates by one of the servers, then topped with two little pieces of quail. Dare I say I would have loved some cheese on this polenta? It was good, but felt a little plain (or maybe I just love cheese that much). Note to self for next time: they have Polenta Concia (polenta and fontina cheese) on the menu. The quail was nice and juicy, to the point where I was tempted to pick it up with my fingers and eat it like a chicken wing. I didn't though – despite the fact that the atmosphere is relaxed and semi-casual, it still has a classy feel to it, so I had to act somewhat civilized.
Last but not least, the dessert tasting. Both Hal and I were hoping for something other than tiramisu because, well, it's just very predictable in an Italian restaurant and so far, Osteria Il Paiolo hadn't been predictable at all. So we were a little surprised to get a plate with a small portion of tiramisu, but like almost everything else in this restaurant, a contradiction follows. A small portion of what I thought was ricotta cheesecake sat alongside the tiramisu, but turns out it was a ricotta mousse with orange cream. It was interesting, but I wasn't a huge fan because it had rather large chunks of orange and lemon zest in it, so it was a little strong, but the mousse was light and airy. And tiramisu is tiramisu – I've had so many in my lifetime that it would have to be topped with money and diamonds to blow me away.
I'm really excited for Osteria Il Paiolo (and I rarely say that about a place), because I think they have a perfect combination of quality food, attentive service and relaxed ambiance that's just what the area needs. And they couldn't have picked a better location for that dynamic either. Sure there are plenty of great restaurants in Williamsburg, but few have this much character and promise.