The word “authentic” gets thrown around quite a bit in the culinary world. When Danilo Mongillo, the owner of Strega in Branford, lived in Italy, he was a police officer for the Ministry of Agricultural, Food and Forestry Policies. It was his job to protect the integrity of any product that had “Made in Italy” on the label.
Not only did Mongillo develop a vast knowledge and appreciation for wine, olive oil, tomatoes and cheese, but he built connections that ensure when the plane from Italy touches down in New York City every Wednesday, only fresh, authentic ingredients will be making their way up I-95 to Branford. “Italy is beautiful. Italian food is healthy. It’s gotta be healthy, it’s gotta be fresh, it’s gotta be seasonal,” Mongillo says. “The Mediterranean is so crazy. … Every month, nature gives you something.”
Mongillo grew up on the family farm and his parents have been running a butcher shop since 1979 out of their home in a small town in the province of Benevento. His love of food and feeding people is almost palpable. He tugs at his shirt sleeve, saying this material can be cheap and fake, but what you put inside your body truly matters.
Our first trip to Strega is the Monday after Father’s Day, and it is expectedly slow with only a few tables occupied in the 65-seat space. This proves to be extremely helpful, as our server spends quite a bit of time at our table going over the menu. If you didn’t take a couple years of Italian in high school, you may need a pocket translator to get through it.
An assortment of small breads, taralli and olive oil — no butter — is served on a wooden cutting board. Mongillo appears to have a particular disdain for butter. We start off with the fiori di zucca, tempura squash flowers stuffed with ricotta, mozzarella, basil and tomato alla Puttanesca. It’s light, delicate and clean, and in no way similar to your typical cheese-filled fried Italian foods.
The carciofi e finocchio is an artichoke and fennel salad with avocado mousse and coffee-infused mustard dressing. I’m used to a little crunch, or at least a variance in textures, in my salads, but other than the similarity of each bite, I have no complaints about the freshness or flavor.
With the first two dishes I find myself becoming conscious of what I’m eating and feeling good about it. Knowing the origin of the food and the commitment to quality demonstrated by Mongillo adds to the enjoyment of the experience. It’s easy to equate Italian cuisine to red sauce and oily cheese, and that’s been one of the obstacles Mongillo has faced since opening in 2016. He needs customers to trust him and chef Marco Giugliano, and step out of their comfort zone.
“People will ask for chicken parm. ‘You don’t have any chicken on the menu?’ Not really. I mean, 50 cents a pound, what I gotta sell? C’mon,” Mongillo says. “I don’t feel comfortable charging 20 bucks for something I gotta pay 50 cents. And it’s just the breast. It’s dry, no flavor. What I gotta cook? We can cook tuna, we can cook salmon, we can cook ribeye. I’m a butcher’s son. Give me the Angus. Give me the blood.”
The next course is when the talents of Mongillo and Giugliano really shine, and you realize the accolades from Gambero Rosso are well deserved. (Strega is the first Connecticut restaurant recognized by the Rome-based authority on Italian food and wine.) After one bite the rigatoni alla Genovese joins the list of best dishes I’ve ever had. Freshly made al dente rigatoni is accompanied by an onion-based sauce — the flavor is comparable to an exquisite French onion soup — with slow-cooked Angus New York strip loin. I would advise against sharing this with dining companions. Forks will be flying in your direction until the plate is clean.
In addition to being the owner and manager, Mongillo is also the pizzaiolo. We opt for the Paesana with fior di latte cheese, Sicilian caponata and cured pork belly. Mongillo gets to work on the Neapolitan-style pie in front of the wood-fired oven in plain sight of the dining room. Sixty seconds at 900 degrees later we’re presented with a light, airy, perfect personal pizza that is thin yet sturdy enough to support its toppings. There’s a slight char but it’s not burnt or crispy, and the areas darkened by the fire still taste like crust, not an ember.
Giugliano is also in charge of the desserts, and the tiramisu and deconstructed cannoli both meet the bar previously raised by everything we’d already enjoyed. The cocktails are fresh and tasty, but not overly strong. That’s a criticism or a compliment, depending on your outlook.
Fully impressed after our incognito visit, I reach out to speak with Mongillo and he invites us back for a complimentary tasting. Imagine traveling to a beautiful place you’ve never been to before. It’s great, you love it. Then you go back a second time, but now you have a local tour guide who shows you all the best spots. Even better.
Strega is packed on a Thursday night and the same wonderful server who took care of us on the first trip is with us again. The people next to us are speaking Italian, and when she returns to our table she begins speaking in her first language before catching herself. It’s a charming moment, and we share a laugh.
The tasting lasts almost three hours and consists of seven courses, with Mongillo expertly pairing wines for us along the way. It starts out with a second round of squash flowers (as good as the first round), followed by a refreshingly unique shrimp and watermelon salad and then some lightly fried eggplant with cheese, ’nduja (spreadable pork salumi), tomato mousse and basil powder.
Calamari comes out next, but it’s not like anything I’ve ever seen before. No fried rings or cocktail sauce. Giugliano boils the squid, freezes it, slices it thin and serves it with caviar and rice paprika chips. Two homemade pasta dishes are next — bigoli cacio e pepe and cappelletti al formaggio. If you have an affinity for fresh pasta, I implore you to give Strega a try. It’s as good as it gets.
We decide to throw in the towel when our server asks if we’re ready for our entrées. What’s Italian for no más? Of course we still had a little room for dessert, and a decadent chocolate lava cake, subtle pistachio gelato and bold hazelnut gelato finish us off beautifully.
Mongillo is clearly a man of many talents and sincerely cares about the customer experience. The standard is high, from the wines he serves to the people he employs. He may even be as genuine as the products he once vowed to protect back home. Maybe he should place a “Made in Italy” label on his own shirt, even if the material happens to be cheap and fake.
576 Main St., Branford
Price range: Appetizers $13-$22, salads $12-$14, pasta $24-$29, entrées $27-$30, pizza $12-$20
Hours: Mon.-Thu. 4-11 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 4 p.m.-midnight. Closed Sun.
Ambiance: An attractive bar area is the centerpiece of the restaurant, with two cozy dining rooms on either side. Live music and DJs create a late-night scene Thursday through Saturday.
Service: Phenomenal, which is important at a restaurant that doesn’t have an easily recognizable menu for a non-Italian speaker. Explanations and patience were needed, and provided.
Food: The creativity, attention to detail and unwavering commitment to serve only the freshest authentic Italian cuisine puts Strega in a league of its own.