Sal e Pepe, Newtown
Sal e Pepe, Newtown ★★★ (Superior)
I love Italian food (who doesn’t?) and I’ve earned my stripes getting to know it up close and personally—walking from Siena to Rome, truffle hunting in Umbria, eating at rustic trattorias and big-city bistros from the mountains of Piedmonte to the shores of Sicily. Still, when I’m told about a new Italian restaurant opening in Connecticut, I confess I don’t immediately run out and try it.
I couldn’t, of course—there are so many. And why should there not be? Italian is our comfort food, and it’s comforting to have a nice little Italian restaurant more or less in our back yard. But some are better than others, and while great Italian restaurants abound in New Haven, Hartford and Stamford, it’s newsworthy to find a wonderful (dare I say gourmet?) Italian restaurant in a town less abundantly endowed.
Besides an appealing open-air dining porch with umbrella tables and flower boxes, Sal e Pepe in Newtown has a lot going for it, starting with the food, which manages to be fresh and original while remaining true to its Italian roots.
The menu embraces old and new. We begin with a classic tortellini en brodo—ringlets of cheese-filled pasta in a broth I would swim to Italy for. Richly nuanced but clear as glass and heady with the scent of wild mushrooms, this deceptively simple brodo is Old World cooking at its best.
On a trendier note, there’s the lobster spring roll, made with lobster, leeks, mushrooms, peppers and sesame seeds wrapped in flaky pastry. A large roll cut in two, it’s tasty and crunchy and enough to share. Crab cakes are huge, too, with plenty of crabmeat inside, which is great, but they’re thickly crusted and fried with a heavy hand, which is not.
At this point we try something I have never tasted. Steamed mussels with “our Gorgonzola cream sauce.” Sounds weird—tastes wonderful. The mussels, Prince Edward Islanders, are lovely, perfectly cooked, plump and velvety, their shells so shiny-clean we use them to scoop up a bit more sauce, which to our surprise complements and enhances the briny mussels in a bright new way. Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?
Sea scallops, too, move from same-old to exciting by virtue of smoked bacon, shallots, capers and a lemon brandy cream sauce.
Playing around with appetizers is fun but the test of any Italian restaurant worth its sal is pasta. So although we’re sampling only four entrées, we order two pasta dishes. Tubes of cannelloni enfolding a luscious ragu of osso buco and cheese do the genre proud, the filling rich and the pasta tender but not flabby, glistening under a sparkling veal demiglace and a shower of sautéed mushrooms.
Rabbit ravioli is equally impressive but very different. A clean, bright dish this—fresh pasta pockets stuffed with juicy shards of white meat and ricotta impastata, the most delicate of all the ricottas with a texture like whipped cream. Served in a shallow soup dish, the pasta (topped with sautéed fresh zucchini, tomato and red peppers) almost floats in a gossamer-light white wine sauce.
Atlantic salmon is pistachio-crusted and felicitously paired with sweet potato purée.
An old proverb advises cooks to make friends with a butcher. Angelo Marini, the affable owner of Sal e Pepe, heeds the advice and takes it a step further, giving his butcher credit on the menu. So of course, we have to try “Grilled prime certified Angus beef from Steve the butcher at Butcher’s Best.” The full-cut porterhouse with filet intact that arrives strikes us as exceptionally flavorful, perhaps grass-fed, lean but tender—plenty on the plate but no cholesterol-challenging gut-buster. For that, you’d go to a steakhouse, right? I’ll stick with Steve and Sal e Pepe, where the steak is dressed up with crisp snippets of smoked Berkshire bacon and served with Gorgonzola au gratin potatoes and sautéed zucchini and yellow squash.
Art and health come together deliciously at Sal e Pepe. Each entrée is provided its own individually designed accompaniment. Sea scallops are served over sweet potato purée. Pork chop Milanese comes with a salad of arugula, fennel and grape tomatoes. Tilapia comes with green pea risotto. Local organic ingredients predominate, including antibiotic- and hormone-free lamb pastured at nearby Sepe Farm. Sal e Pepe serves it iron-skillet-seared with a fresh rosemary sauce.
Having dined so healthfully, it’s time for dessert. Listen up: Heaven is at hand. Renia, Mr. Marino’s wife, has made her famous Hawaiian carrot cake, which lives up to its reputation—moist and richly embellished with pineapple, coconut and cranberries and topped with mascarpone frosting. A tray of adorable little cupcakes has just arrived from a secret source, and they’re as good as they look. Crème brûlée is classically perfect, and mini-cannolis delight us with a chocolate-chip ricotta filling.
But I have fallen in love with “drunken cherries,” cuddling in a tulip glass with vanilla ice cream, melted bittersweet chocolate and fresh whipped cream. Deliciously simple and a dish with a backstory Mr. Marino is delighted to share. He buys the finest Italian Amarena cherries and marinates them in top-of-the-line grappa for 24 hours. Cin cin!
Sal e Pepe
97 South Main St., Newtown (203/426-0805; salepeperestaurant.com)
Monday through Thursday 12 to 9, Friday till 10, Saturday 4 to 10, Sunday 4 to 8. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range: appetizers $4.95 to $12.95, entrées $17.95 to $39.95, desserts $4.95 to $7.95.Sal e Pepe, Newtown