The word “authentic” is used often in the culinary world. When Danilo Mongillo, the owner of Strega in Branford, lived in Italy, he was a police officer in the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Forestry Policy. It was his job to protect the integrity of any product that had “Made in Italy” on the label.
Not only has Mongillo developed a vast knowledge and appreciation of wine, olive oil, tomatoes and cheese, but he has established connections that ensure that when the plane from Italy lands in New York every Wednesday, only fresh and authentic ingredients will make their way. to I-95 in Branford. “Italy is beautiful. Italian food is healthy. It has to be healthy, it has to be fresh, it has to be seasonal,” Mongillo says. “The Mediterranean is so crazy. … Every month nature gives you something.
Mongillo grew up on the family farm and her parents have been running a butcher’s shop since 1979 in their house in a small town in the province of Benevento. Her love of food and feeding people is almost palpable. He tugs at his shirt sleeve, saying this material may be cheap and fake, but what you put inside your body really matters.
Our first trip to Strega is the Monday after Father’s Day, and it’s expected to be 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 few years of Italian in high school, you might need a pocket translator to get by.
An assortment of rolls, taralli and olive oil — without butter — are served on a wooden chopping board. Mongillo seems to have a particular disdain for butter. We start with fiori di zucca, tempura squash blossoms 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 dishes.
Carciofi e finocchio is an artichoke and fennel salad with an avocado mousse and a coffee-infused mustard vinaigrette. I’m used to a bit of crunch, or at least a variation in textures, in my salads, but other than the similarity in every bite, I couldn’t fault the freshness or flavor.
With the first two dishes, I become aware of what I eat and I feel good. 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 food with red sauce and greasy cheese, and that’s one of the hurdles Mongillo has faced since it opened in 2016. It needs customers to trust it, as well as people. ‘to chef Marco Giugliano, and get out of their comfort zone.
“People are going to ask for chicken parmesan. “You don’t have chicken on the menu?” Not really. I mean, 50 cents a pound, what do I have to sell? Come on, said Mongillo. “I don’t feel comfortable asking $20 for something that I have to pay 50 cents. And that’s just the breast. It’s dry, no flavor. What should I cook? We can cook tuna, we can cook salmon, we can cook sirloin. I am a butcher’s son. Give me the Angus. Give me the blood.
The next course is where the talents of Mongillo and Giugliano really shine, and you realize that Gambero Rosso’s accolades are well deserved. (Strega is Connecticut’s first 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 come with an onion-based sauce – the flavor is comparable to an exquisite French onion soup – with slow-cooked Angus New York strip loin. I advise against sharing this with table mates. The forks will fly in your direction until the plate is clean.
Besides being the owner and manager, Mongillo is also the pizza maker. We opt for the Paesana with fior di latte cheese, Sicilian caponata and dried pork belly. Mongillo gets to work on the Neapolitan tart in front of the wood-fired oven in full view of the dining room. Sixty seconds at 900 degrees later, we’re presented with a light, airy, perfect personal pizza that’s thin but strong enough to support its toppings. There is a slight shading but it’s not burnt or crispy, and the areas darkened by the fire still taste like crust, not embers.
Giugliano is also in charge of desserts, and the tiramisu and deconstructed cannoli both meet the bar previously raised by everything we’ve already enjoyed. The cocktails are fresh and tasty, but not too strong. It’s a criticism or a compliment, depending on your point of view.
Fully impressed after our incognito visit, I reach out to speak to Mongillo and he invites us back for a free tasting. Imagine traveling to a beautiful place you’ve never been before. It’s great, you love it. Then you come back a second time, but now you have a local guide showing you all the best spots. Even better.
Strega is packed on a Thursday night and the same wonderful waiter who looked after us on the first trip is with us again. The people next to us speak Italian, and when she comes back to our table, she starts speaking in her first language before catching herself. It’s a lovely moment, and we share a giggle.
The tasting lasts nearly three hours and consists of seven courses, with Mongillo skillfully pairing the wines for us along the way. It starts with a second round of squash blossoms (just as good as the first round), followed by a unique and refreshing shrimp and watermelon salad, then lightly fried eggplant with cheese, ‘nduja (pork sausage spread), 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, cuts it into thin slices and serves it with caviar and rice paprika crisps. 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 try Strega. It’s as good as it gets.
We decide to throw in the towel when our server asks if we’re ready for our entrees. What is Italian for no más? Of course, we still had room for dessert, and a decadent chocolate lava cake, subtle pistachio ice cream and daring hazelnut ice cream finished us off beautifully.
Mongillo is clearly multi-talented and genuinely cares about the customer experience. The standard is high, from the wines he serves to the people he employs. It may even be as authentic as the products he once swore to protect at home. Maybe he should put a “Made in Italy” label on his own shirt, even if the material is cheap and counterfeit.
576 Main Street, Branford
Price scale: Appetizers $13-$22, salads $12-$14, pastas $24-$29, main dishes $27-$30, pizzas $12-$20
Hours: Mon.-Thu. 4pm-11pm, Fri.-Sat. 4 p.m.-midnight. Closed Sun.
Atmosphere: An attractive bar is the centerpiece of the restaurant, with two cozy dining areas either side. Live music and DJs create a night scene from Thursday to Saturday.
Service: Phenomenal, which is important in a restaurant that doesn’t have an easily recognizable menu for a non-Italian. Explanations and patience were needed, and provided.
Food: Creativity, attention to detail and an unwavering commitment to serving only the freshest, authentic Italian cuisine sets Strega in a league of its own.