Gnocchi with Castelmagno cheese and crushed hazelnuts. Photo: Evelyn Freja

I have a new favorite bartender. His name is Enrico, and he works at a place in Red Hook called Bar Mario. It’s been open for only about a month, though most of the people inside already know Enrico’s name as well. Before Bar Mario, he worked at restaurants in Manhattan for a couple decades and before that owned a bar and pizzeria in a mountain town in Italy. “Early ’90s, lots of pretty girls,” he reminisces. His experience is immediately apparent as he greets each new guest with a “Ciao!” while preparing two drinks and remembering your order. From the moment I met him on a recent Sunday night in February, I knew I was in good hands, as was proven by the immaculate negroni before me.

The food that followed was equally impressive: barely battered fritto misto of shrimp, squid, and Brussels sprouts piled with fried rosemary and basil (among the best fried food I’ve had in a while) and then a plate of plump gnocchi — fork-size potato orbs gloriously sauced with a milky, “sporadically blue” cheese from Piedmont that tasted slightly of hazelnuts, which were also toasted and sprinkled over the top. A classic dish made with the necessary level of care. When Enrico asked me if I liked it, I tried not to let on just how much. The truth is I could probably eat it every day, my own personal macaroni and cheese, and be happy.

On another night, I had fried artichokes that were firm and didn’t absorb any grease into their folds. They were served with paper-thin slices of the fennel-heavy salumi known as finocchiona, and though I was told they were not meant to be eaten together, I nevertheless wrapped one of the golden wedges into a piece of charcuterie. It was an excellent bite.

The bar moved into the old Fort Defiance space, and has become a draw for neighbors. Evelyn Freja.

The bar moved into the old Fort Defiance space, and has become a draw for neighbors. Evelyn Freja.

Bar Mario is not Enrico’s place, but he has known the owners, Moreno Cerutti and Alessandro Bandini, for years. Wait, where’s Mario? “The funny part is there is no Mario,” Enrico tells me. Instead, Mario is a recurring character in the songs of Luciano Ligabue (he’s kind of like Italy’s Bruce Springsteen). His fans, which the restaurant’s owners consider themselves, call him Liga.

Cerutti and Bandini have mostly staffed the new restaurant with employees from their other place, Osteria Carlina in the West Village. It makes the restaurant feel more established than it is, and neighbors already consider themselves regulars. One night I saw a woman with a stroller soothing her baby beneath the chandelier and a kid who could barely see over the bar greeting a server with a well practiced “Ciao!” If you show up on a Saturday night, you may find the owners sitting with friends and stopping regularly to sing along to the retro music on the speakers while a steady stream of customers drop in for an amaro to close out the night.

Caesar salad. Photo: Evelyn Freja

The owners are from Turin and Florence, and the food, which Bandini oversees, sticks to dishes from those two regions (chicken-liver crostini, Piedmontese agnolotti in ragù, vitello tonnato) plus a few Bar Mario specialties like the “spaghetti ‘hangover’” — noodles tossed with a mix of onions, garlic, capers, anchovies, oven-dried tomatoes, basil, parsley, chiles, and two types of cheese — and a requisite Caesar salad, here presented as plumes of romaine covered with noticeably sharp dressing and lots of cheese.

It was during a meal at Hometown Bar-B-Que last May that Cerutti and Bandini got the idea to open a bar in Red Hook. “We really fell in love with the vibe of the neighborhood,” says Bandini, “to a point that it became clear to us that perhaps we should scout for locations.” They started looking seriously in August and found this spot on the second day. It is the former home of Fort Defiance, but besides the bar placement and sidewalk-window seating, Bar Mario looks and feels nothing like the previous tenant. That’s a good thing because Red Hook doesn’t need another Fort Defiance (it’s already here, a block away), but the neighborhood does have a surprising lack of Italian restaurants, or at least it did. Now, it is home not only to one of my favorite new restaurants but also to Bandini and Cerutti, who have both since moved to Red Hook.

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