Even on a Wednesday night, the parking lot at Branca is packed. Waiting for my friend to arrive, I watch the lot's traffic from my car — for every car that pulls out, another zips in. By the time my friend and I go inside, it's 7:45 p.m. The hostess apologetically says there are no tables available, but that's there's space and a full-service menu at the bar.
Our seats give us a good view of the dining room. It's a small yet spacious area done in medium-tone wood, and soft blacks and whites, a color palate similar to that of Branca's sister restaurant, The Revelry. (Both restaurants are owned and operated by Joshua and Jenna Miles; Branca is also owned by Tyler and Alicia Wolk.) The décor is restrained with a few flourishes to remind patrons they're in an Italian restaurant: framed prints of vintage Italian ads, a shelf decorated with mason jars of giardiniera, and most appealingly, a wood-fire pizza oven covered in Ferrari-red tile, topped with a brassy vent.
There's a pleasant hum of activity, too, as diners twirl pasta on their forks, sip craft cocktails and tell jokes; servers glide through the room looking for tables that need attention. Like the dining room, the bar area is full, convivial and well-managed by the staff. The bartenders and servers chat with customers and each other, never missing a beat or the need to refresh a drink. We're given menus right away, and our orders come just as fast. I overhear one server tell a trainee that Branca has "lots of regulars." Nodding toward to two men at the end of the bar, she smiles and says, "Those guys are here every week, same spot."
Our patate fritte ($6) appetizer arrives — French fries. If not strictly Italian, we overlook it. The hand-cut fries are just thick enough to allow for a tender interior without sacrificing a crisp crust. They are tossed in a truffle sea salt and served with an herbed aioli, and I load up each fry with as much aioli as possible. Knowing that more food is coming, I ask my friend to place the fries far away from me but I continue to eat them, stretching across her and the bar to reach the bowl. We talk and watch the room.
Everywhere I look, people are having a good time: they're relaxed, they're comfortable, they're enjoying their drinks and food. So are my friend and I: she laughs longer and louder at an embarrassing story I share than maybe I've ever seen her do before — even though she'd barely touched the excellent red wine (Barbera d'Asti Tre Vigne 2012, $10 a glass) that Randy, a bartender, recommended to us. It turns out that Randy is a former student of mine, and I ask if he had studied bartending. Through working at Branca, he says. The wine is aromatic, medium bodied, and dry with an acidity that cuts nicely through richness.
The wine is the suggested paring for the superb gnocchi al ragu Napoletano ($21). The pasta is tender with a gentle chew. If the gnocchi were any softer, they might melt on the tongue. Still, they hold their own against the meaty ragu, which is more meat than sauce. Shreds of pork shoulder are married with tomato and wine and dusted with pecorino romano for a haltingly delicious dish. One quibble: there is a bit too much fat left on the pork, but that wouldn't dissuade me from ordering the gnocchi — with the wine — in the future.
We bite into slices of the salsiccia e friarielli pizza ($15). The pizza oven operates under the supervision of Branca's executive chef, Pasquale Sorrentino, who hails from Naples, Italy. Branca is in the process of becoming designated as a VPN (Vera Pizza Napoletana) which requires specific ingredients, techniques, temperatures, and equipment to be recognized as pizza in the Neapolitan style. As VPN's guidelines stipulate, the pizza is thin, soft, elastic, and "easily foldable."
About the size of a dinner plate, the pizza is filled with sausage, broccoli rabe, and roasted peppers, with slices of melted mozzarella. Its colors are an homage to the Italian flag. The sausage, sliced on a diagonal into 1/4-inch pieces, is not greasy and almost delicate; the vegetables are fresh but do not dampen the crust. Underneath, the pizza is a deep honey blonde hue with patches darkening toward char — these are the best parts of the crust.
Though we are stuffed, we order dessert. A slab of chocolate cake ($8) has a layer of apricot jam through the middle and is frosted with a chocolate ganache. It's presented on a wood plank with dollops of apricot and raspberry jams. Like a lot of Italian cakes, it's dry with a muted sweetness. I like it, but prefer the lemon sorbet ($2) I tasted on a previous visit. Sweet, tart and refreshing, the sorbet tasted like the best lemon ices sold at the best Italian bakeries .
By the time we finish, it's after 9:30pm. The restaurant has cleared out a bit but, for a weeknight, there are still more people than I'd expect lingering over their food and drinks. They don't want to go home yet; they're having too good of a time.
I know how they feel.
You can find Laura Rebecca Kenyon on Twitter and Instagram @LauraKenyon, and dig through her recipe archive at LauraRebeccasKitchen.com.