Il Barilotto is like an old friend with some colorful eccentricities: thoroughly reliable, but rarely boring. The Fishkill restaurant is now in its 11th year, but manages to shake things up in the crowded field of Italian cuisine with a weekly rotation of ample specials, a vast and changing wine list, and a few subtle twists on standard dishes.
“Il Barilotto is kind of a modern-day approach to Italian food,” says General Manager Scott Rosenberg, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America who has a knack for straight-talk about food and wine. “It’s not your mom-and-pop, red-sauce kind of joint. I don’t want to say it’s a fusion approach because that’s not what Il Barilotto is meant to be. It’s deeply rooted in Italy, but it definitely stretches its hands into France and Spain and other places along the Mediterranean. It creates a cuisine that’s unique only to Il Barilotto.”
Take, for example, the watermelon salad, a recent special. Says Rosenberg: “It’s summery, but watermelon isn’t exactly a staple Italian ingredient. The other ingredients surround it — great extra virgin olive oil and baby arugula, things like that — and create a theme that fits very well within the confines of an Italian restaurant, but with a more modern-day approach.” Another such twist takes limoncillo, usually served as an after-dinner liqueur, and whips it into a delicate creamy sauce to accompany miniature penne pasta, shrimp, and green peas.
Dark Honduran mahogony tables give a contemporary feel to Il Barilotto’s dining room
Housed in a 19th-century carriage house, the restaurant is upscale enough to eschew the checkerboard tablecloth look of family-fare, Italian-American restaurants. In fact, there aren’t any tablecloths at all on the dark, Honduran mahogany tables, which blend well with the exposed red brick of an interior wall and the wrought-iron sconces. Framed vintage bistro posters hanging throughout create an oldworld feel. This is the kind of friend who dresses well enough that no one quite notices how much time she’s put into it.
The food and décor reflect the sensibilities of owner Eduardo Lauria, who was raised in the Naples area and began working in the culinary field as a teenager at the nearby tourist-filled island, Ischia. After moving to the Hudson Valley area, he opened a string of pizzerias before opening Aroma Osteria in Wappingers Falls in 1997. Its success spawned Il Barilotto in 2001, which doesn’t cleave to Italian tradition as much as Aroma, creating a dining experience you’d expect to find in the city. Indeed, executive chef Wayne Homsi has worked in some of New York City’s finest restaurants.
My dining companion and I arrived about 7:30 on a Friday night, and the place was hopping. Reservations are available only for parties of five or more, so we were prepared to have a cocktail at the crowded mahogany bar while awaiting a table. For both of us it had been one of those hectic days when lunch had been skipped and more had gone wrong than right. So we experienced peckish euphoria when the maître d’ whisked us to a table for two within a minute of arriving.
Steamed PEI mussels in Cinzano sweet vermouth, with cherry tomatoes and basil
The speedy service continued with the immediate appearance of our server and, more importantly, a basket of crispy bread sticks and slices of ciabatta accompanied by whipped Ricotta. (The service from beginning to end was spectacular.) What slowed our dining stride, however, was the sheer volume of wines and courses available. Our server read a litany of eight specials that seemed a menu itself. The wine list offers dozens of bottles and half bottles from various Italian vintners, priced from $26 to $195. (“We don’t really have any $300 bottles of wine or showcase wines that just sit downstairs and collect dust,” says Rosenberg.) We ordered by the glass (And why not? Il Barilotto has earned HV’s Best Wine by the Glass in the past), and my 2007 Sicilian Shiraz was luscious and slightly spicy, with a hint of vanilla and oak.
The two appetizers we ordered, jumbo shrimp and steamed mussels, were a delight, if not “lite.” The shrimp were bathed in a creamy brandy-Gorgonzola sauce and delivered such richness that we thought we’d begun with dessert. Rosenberg describes the shrimp dish as “the biggest irony” on the menu because putting dairy or cheese, particularly blue cheese, with shellfish or seafood “is just a huge Italian no-no. But this is one of those instances when they harmonize so well — kind of like a magic trick.”
The Prince Edward Island mussels are sautéed in Cinzano sweet vermouth, to which garlic, baby tomatoes, and fresh basil are added. The mussels were tender, with the vermouth mellowing the taste of the sea. Rosenberg calls the recipe an example of “the Il Barilotto style of taking something and modernizing it without causing too much drama within the dish.” The mussel appetizer was introduced a couple of years ago and was an instant hit, he said, and it’s now one of the core courses that are rarely off the menu for long. (The jumbo shrimp is another, as well as the restaurant’s namesake dish, Conchiglie Al Barilotto: seashell-shaped pasta mixed with shrimp, calamari, scallops, tomato, and basil.)
For our main dishes we decided to try one each from the pasta-loaded primi and meat-intense secondi categories. My friend’s Ricotta cavatelli was generous sized and mixed with shrimp, butternut squash, wild mushrooms, and pine nuts, each of which held its individual flavor while steeped in sage and brown butter. I flirted with the idea of the wine-braised lamb shank, but settled on the veal scallopine. It, too, was generous, with three sizable medallions of veal heaped over a moist mound of chopped leaks. But in this case, size was perhaps intended to compensate for quality because the veal, while tasty, was slightly tough.
Semifreddo al Cappuccino — espresso laced semi-frozen mousse with a chocolate-dipped biscotti
The dessert menu tantalized with sorbet and gelato, cakes and crêpes, but we shared one of the specials, a semifreddo that combined banana, chocolate, chopped almond biscotti, and toasted coconut — all topped with a hazelnut-chocolate truffle. While a semifreddo is traditionally smooth, Rosenberg says this particular version “adds a little whimsy with tasty, more American-style ingredients.” Indeed, we found the half-frozen pleasure was the best of two dessert worlds: ice cream and mousse. The slightly crunchy blend was neither too heavy nor too frothy.
Tempted as we were to sip a couple of espressos, we left instead in the happy glow of sweets. That’s how parting from a good friend should always feel.
Lunch and dinner served Mon.-Sat. Appetizers range from $9-$13, entrées $25-$28, and desserts $8-$9.