‘Do you ever see yourself opening your own restaurant?” is a question the Underground Gourmet is frequently asked. To which the answer is always a hearty yes: If an ill- tempered chef were to thwack him over the head with a leg of mutton or a Le Creuset cast-iron skillet and if he were to survive, but with severely diminished mental faculties, then, yes, the Underground Gourmet would immediately, upon regaining consciousness, open a restaurant, despite the well-known fact that 99 percent of all New York restaurants declare bankruptcy and close within 26 seconds of their grand opening.
There was a time, not so long ago, however, when the idea of opening a restaurant—specifically, a quaint and presumably easy-to-manage panini parlor modeled along the lines of ’ino or Bar Veloce—did not seem so absurd to us. But then the market for quaint, presumably easy-to-manage panini parlors quickly became as oversaturated as the market for supercolossal Japanese megarestaurants. And, as we became aware after sampling far too many clumsy versions, seemingly cooked by George Foreman himself, the business of balancing bread and filling, conceiving harmonious combinations, and concocting zesty condiments turns out to be more an intricate art than a fanciful diversion.
Jeff Lederman did not let that stop him. The Cobble Hill entrepreneur already owned Nectar, a neighborhood juice bar and café, but squooshing blackberries and pulverizing cucumbers didn’t sate his appetite for Italian food and wine, or his ambition to open a place that paid respectful homage to ’ino, the archetypical south-Village wine-and-panini bar and a favorite pre-Brooklyn hangout for Lederman and his wife. So he took a space on the mostly residential Henry Street, poured a rough concrete floor and blowtorched the tops of pine tables to suitably rustic effect, and brought the concept (and even a version of ’ino’s delectable “Italian BLT”) to a quiet corner of brownstone Brooklyn.
Not that everything about Bocca Lupo is reminiscent of ’ino. The space, for one, with its plate-glass windows and long bar, is larger and more expansive—much more ’inoteca than ’ino. The menu, too. Lederman has retained the estimable services of Kenny Tufo, a well-versed chef-about-town who last worked at Maremma, where we became fans, to supplement the sandwiches with nightly specials and tasty small plates. We sensed his presence at Bocca Lupo when we saw vestiges of Maremma—the norcino, or butcher-style pork ragù, and the mint panna cotta—on the menu, and when we tasted an utterly delicious panzanella-salad special of shreds of vinegar-moistened bread scattered with capers and onions and nestled on a layer of perfectly ripe sliced heirloom tomatoes.
At its heart, Bocca Lupo stays true to the Italian-sandwich tradition, starting with sourcing top-notch ingredients and assembling them with care. The menu comprises the holy trinity of this type of establishment: pressed panini (most of them cut into quarters for easy sharing), tramezzini (those delicate Venetian tea sandwiches, served here on crustless Blue Ribbon Bakery Pullman bread), and small, hors d’oeuvre–ish bruschetta. Tufo’s kitchen resists the gluttonous all-American impulse to overstuff, a particular menace to the minimalist art of Italian sandwich making. His are perfect finger food, sparingly filled with sharp complementary flavors like mortadella, pickled onion, and pecorino, or brunch’s truffled egg salad. For the panini, airy ciabatta is grilled to an almost crisp, melding tasty roasted chicken, tomato, and Asiago, say, or the more pungent sweet sausage, broccoli rabe, and Taleggio. The “P.L.T.” (pancetta, arugula, roasted tomato, lemon aïoli) is a panino tweak on ’ino’s brilliant tramezzino version, and a good one.
But the beauty of Bocca Lupo is that it supplements the bread-based backbone of the menu with enough salads, antipasti, small plates, and daily specials to make it possible to snack one’s way tapas style through an eclectic and satisfying meal. Sure, you could park at the bar for a quick bite and a glass of wine, but it’s just as appealing to linger over a bottle, sampling and sharing a wide variety of dishes. Superb veal-and-porcini meatballs are ladled over a nice thick slice of soft bread, like a clever neo-Italian-American take on that old diner classic, the hot open-face sandwich. Thinly sliced roast pork is dabbed with creamy tuna sauce in a low-budget riff on vitello tonnato. The imported, Italian-oil-packed tuna dispersed with meaty olives in a green salad is so good you want to ask the chef where he got it.
After that, the “Insalata Bocca,” with its artichoke hearts and diced tomatoes, is just a bit of a letdown, as is the bland “Baked Maccherone and Cheese,” which tasted like it came straight off the kids’ menu. One night’s butternut-squash risotto special was tasty enough, but could have been creamier, and the house garnish—an herb-marinated plum tomato that accompanies every panino and tramezzino—gets a little monotonous after a while, especially when juxtaposed with the panzanella’s excellent heirlooms.