Downtown Milford, where the 17th-century green ends at the famous stone bridge, pulses with activity. Boaters pull up to sun themselves on different decks at Archie Moore’s and Flipside, enormous patios overlooking the waterfall at the headwaters of Milford harbor draw crowds in the thousands to Stonebridge, Eli’s and SBC. Shops and eateries shoulder against each other for the length of the tree-shaded green. This historic hot spot has a new face with an old profession: witchcraft.
Strega may be familiar to anyone farther up New Haven County — and those who read our 2019 review — from their previous location in Branford, since shuttered by the COVID shutdown. Now situated across from Milford Camera, easily arrived at by boat, car or train, the new Strega aims for satisfaction.
Chef Danilo Mongillo cast a wide net when looking for a new place to keep Strega alive and continue sharing his love of the Italy he knew, growing up in Benevento, Campania. The “City of Witches” draws its nickname from the long-standing cults of the goddess Diana in the region who, through persecution and the evolution of tradition, became herbal healers. Strega means “witch” in Italian, and the website says the restaurant is dedicated to those women who used their arts to create something more from what the earth provided.
The modern space is bright with swoops of LED lighting over an L-shaped bar with a direct view of dual pizza ovens as I walk inside. Lively and increasingly boisterous on the Friday before the Milford Oyster Festival in August, the bar pops with wine being poured here, a fresh focaccia seconds from the oven served there, a red and spicy-fragrant pizza diavolá landing with a musical clank to my side.
Prep areas and ovens sit directly in front of customers at the bar, inviting interaction between staff and customers. Conversation and hand gestures chop back and forth as Mongillo reaches across the bar to offer guests slices of prosciutto while prepping a salad-topped prosciutto e rucola pie. Friendly mixologist Anistina Leboy is a whir of activity as she fills glasses and orders from the table waitstaff while dodging the chefs.
The slightly frenetic dinner theater is due to a single, curious fact: you’re seeing Strega’s main kitchen.
“I did not want it at first; I went right away when I saw it,” Mongillo says of the restaurant, taking a minute to catch his breath and half a glass of wine later in the evening. “I came in July of 2020. The sign said ‘Perfect Restaurant Space,’ and the neighbor said, ‘You don’t want it. There’s nowhere to put a hood, you can’t have any burners, no kitchen!’ and I thought, no, I will leave it.”
Months later, he reconsidered the space as a wine bar, with charcuterie misto. That December, he came across a new piece of kitchen technology he’d never known before, a smokeless pizza oven. “I liked Milford; my wife liked the area. I began to think of what I could do now.”
The result is a sampler of Italy on the busiest corner of the green: Polpo & patate — octopus over potato foam with cherry tomato sauce and Gaeta olives — a misto of cured meats, beef carpaccio in a cacio and pepe sauce, tuna tartare with vegetable caponata, caprese and buffalo mozzarella with shaved black truffles. Focaccia emerges from the ovens and arrives topped with simple EVOO and oregano, or rosemary, olives, lardo from Tuscany. Salads range from basic sides to the Tonno, wherein mixed greens and Italian tuna are drizzled with olive oil over Sardinian carasau flatbread, under celery, cherry tomatoes, and avocado mousse.
Military service brought the chef to the Italian Alps, where he experienced considerably different food and local produce than at home, and a later career protecting Italy’s food and wine from counterfeiting operations with the ministry of agriculture and food honed his expertise. The tomatoes, the cheeses, a wine list almost as long as the menu — mainly Italian with a sprinkle of California and French vintages — is guaranteed genuine. Be it ingredients or flavor, Strega is the real deal. “I want to challenge the palate of my customers with something authentic,” the chef says. “It seems Milford is enjoying that here already.”
I take my seat and order a pre-dinner Manhattan Siciliano, blending Woodford Reserve bourbon and barrel-aged bitters with Amaro Averna and a Lazzaroni cherry. The herbal, bittersweet liqueur adds a healthy dash of Mediterranean to the Manhattan and, while mulling a second, my first course arrives.
Capesante e Carciofi is scallop crudo served in a plump ceramic torus topped with floral cuts of artichoke heart over a foundation of artichoke purée. Not initially aware of the kitchen arrangement at Strega, I am a bit surprised by scallops in the raw, but they are creamy and fresh. An abundance of artichokes both over and under the fish are just enough for me, and a very pleasing complement with hints of lemon juice and mint. A single half cherry tomato confit could have been quadrupled at little additional cost, a step I’d encourage for the wonderful flavor counterpoint it presents.
A small plate with a big pedigree, the Salumi di Mare arrives via Michelin-starred restaurant Indaco, on the isle of Ischia near Capri. Chef Pasquale Palamaro, faced with bounteous seafood from the Mediterranean and nearby inland seas, and no customers coming to his restaurant at the Albergo Regina Isabella resort, decided to explore what he could do with cured fish. What comes from the Tyrrhenian Sea to your plate at Strega is a trick on the eyes. Slices appearing to be dried salami are actually deep red tuna, flecked with small chunks of white swordfish “fat.” The salumi is intense, slightly smoky, and chewy, with a complex, intriguing aftertaste.
Smoked, cured and dusted in herbs, the accompanying Morone (Mediterranean sea bass) is one of the finest food discoveries I’ve been introduced to in 2021. Each tiny steak is creamy, soft and very salty. It’s revelatory, and shipped to Connecticut straight from Ischia.
Taking bartender Leboy’s advice, I choose the calabrese from Strega’s options of specialty pizzas. It arrives with a fluffy, chewy crust like a Bruno di Fabio pie, the dough enthusiastic with yeasty freshness. The pizza’s own downtown business district glistens with red sauce, dark ‘nduja sausage melting into rounds of melted mozzarella, color contrasting with green leaves of basil. A ball of whole burrata rests like a soft citadel at the center, wound with delicate filaments of smoked red chilis. The colors, the flavor, everything is beautiful. Take a bite and step from one flavor to the next simply by thinking: sweet tomato, fresh cream, herbal basil, smoky, spicy heat, the fresh, bready crust … mind and mouth, your whole head does backflips.
This is something special, and you may want to arrive early.
“There is no walk-in cooler for me here,” Mongillo tells me later. “There is no room, everything has to be fresh and fit in small coolers, so I make 50 pizza doughs a day. If I run out, it’s just done.”
I pair the red pie with a glass of Pasetti Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, the spicy heat in the pizza bringing out fruit notes of black cherry in the wine. Mongillo, as noted, knows plenty about wine, and from a young age. His family vineyard’s wines have just been introduced to the U.S. as terreStregate. Both the red Aglianico and white Falanghina are excellent. The chef’s jarred arrabiata and pomodoro sauces are both for sale at Strega, each coming with a bag of dried Rummo pasta.
Mongillo says he sees the menu at Strega changing with the seasons as the restaurant moves into its first fall and winter in Milford. The ovens are perfect for creating braised meats, osso bucco, and the like. He didn’t quite have his recipes set when we spoke in August, the evening before the oyster festival brought 10,000 people to his doorstep, but if our dinner was any indication, it’ll have a bit of old-country magic.
9 River St., Milford
Hours: Dinner Mon.–Sat. 4–10 p.m.