The party was in full swing as we opened the door and walked into Birravino on Riverside Avenue, Red Bank, on a recent Friday night. It sounded as if there was a celebration being held at every table: unbridled laughter, animated conversation and music accompanied hearty eating and drinking. Such is the atmosphere created at this unique fusion of brewpub, trattoria, and gastropub – sort of Italy meets Britain, if you will. Yes, the noise level is high, and the expansive open design, with bare floors, brick walls, and metal-topped tables does nothing to dampen it, but it does make for a lively, spirit-raising experience.
The waitstaff were extraordinarily attentive, informative and clearly eager to please. From the order-taker to the wine and beer manager, they all made an effort to ensure that we were enjoying our evening, and answered any and all questions.
Insalate Verde ($14), a generous serving of mixed baby greens, asparagus, and string beans, dressed simply with herb-flecked EVOO and red wine vinegar, and topped with eye-catching slices of large, crisp, watermelon radishes, was light and refreshing. There is always a feeling of virtue and good health from eating a fresh salad, and indeed, this one filled the bill nicely.
Having never met an octopus dish that did not tempt, I was immediately drawn to a special offering ($16); braised, cut-up pieces, were served in a whole plum tomato sauce, with strips of fennel, sweet green Sicilian olives, hot cherry peppers, capers and a hunk of grilled Ciabatta bread. It was a flavorful variation on the usual charred tentacle presentations. The fennel’s mild anise flavor and slightly crunchy texture provided a tasty counterpoint to the octopus, which was meaty, but inconsistently cooked, with some pieces properly firm, others too soft.
Pizza or Pasta? Pizza won out this night, although the pastas did sound appealing. From the variety offered, I chose a simple Margherita ($18), that being the yard-stick which I use to measure pizza quality without the distraction of multiple toppings. This one showed well, with a rich tomato sauce, lots of mozzarella, and whole basil leaves; the only shortcoming being some toughness of the crust, but not tragically so.
A special of the night, Zuppa di Pesce ($30), was indeed special: a tender piece of filet of sole, shrimp, calamari rings, black mussels and house-made Fregola, in a light, but very flavorful tomato broth. Fregola, a Sardinian pasta, resembling couscous but slightly larger, is made by rolling little pellets of semolina dough into small round balls and then toasting them in the oven; unique and very tasty. I really liked this.
The Branzino Special ($32), an oven-roasted whole fish stuffed with thin slices of lemon and sprigs of fresh herbs, served with sautéed zucchini, onion, charred cherry tomatoes, and some pieces of roasted garlic, which lent a Mediterranean touch to the tasty vegetables, was quite good.
A simple side dish (Contorni) of Braised Escarole ($9) with Spanish onion and currants, was silky and stunning, providing an unexpected treat. Properly cooked just through, while preserving a nice gentle crunch, this humble vegetable was elevated to leading role status. Bravo!
In addition to a wide selection of house-made and other-maker beers, there are two wine lists, both appropriately all Italian. The regular one offers selections by the glass as well as a large number of well-chosen bottles, $25/$50. The second, “Speciale” list, where bottles start at $50 and go up from there, showcases many unusual, and indeed special bottles, which are reasonably priced considering their rarity and retail cost. For white, I chose an enjoyable glass of 2016 Terlano Pinot Bianco ($14) from the Alto Adige region, with an aroma of sea air, minerals and pear, and good body and acidity. The red, a glass of 2014 Montessu from Sardinia, a blend of 60 percent Carignano, with some Syrah, Cabernet (both Sauvignon and Franc), and Merlot, was a pleasant surprise. Low tannin, velvety fruit, and a touch of acidity, made it a good pairing for the pizza and tomato-based entrees.
The dessert menu offered Tiramisu, Gelato and Sorbetto, Apple Cranberry Crisp, and New York Style Cheesecake with raspberry glaze, and Chocolate pudding, but we had already reached maximum capacity, so we will return another time to explore the menu further.
We enjoyed our visit. If your goal is a lively night out, with good food and caring service, in a casual and unpretentious, pub-like setting, then Birravino is a very good choice. Yes, the noise level is high, but it does add to the festive atmosphere where everyone is having much fun, and all seem to be celebrating something!
183 Riverside Ave., Red Bank
Bob Sacks, longtime food and wine buff, reviews restaurants in this bimonthly column. Read his reviews here.
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