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Return to Joy

The roasted artichokes with lobster salad ($11) is one of the highlights on DiGiulio & Co.'s list of appetizers.
(photo: Matthew Quinn)

If you remember Club 31, Victor Hugo’s and DiGiulio’s on Allen, you will be thrilled to know the DiGiulio family has returned. This time, Joanne DiGiulio wisely chose a unique space on Hertel and brought the expertise of Chef Dunbar Berdine, the enthusiasm of Bar Manager Bill Donovan and an experienced wait staff to help out.

DiGiulio & Co. is housed in a building of many incarnations, most notably Mulligan’s. This notoriously hip nightclub of the 1970s was where OJ Simpson and his Bills buddies would mix and mingle with the young, vibrant, disco-dancing crowd. Many from this generation will have fond, if somewhat blurry, memories of this very trendy hotspot. Now the dignity of the DiGiulio family has transformed the space into a fusion of traditional fine dining, with a slightly modern edge.

My friend and I are seated at a far corner of the dining room. It offers a view of the entire establishment, which consists of an attractive open kitchen, a sunken dining room and a nice-sized bar. Classic Buffalo exposed brick with quirky circular details comprise one wall. The other walls are painted red with white crown molding, and are adorned with a tasteful artwork series. Off the main dining room, a circular brick doorway opens to a small dining room with one regal table accommodating parties up to 15 people. The most dramatic element, leftover from the past, is the large center atrium above the dining room complete with globe lighting and beveled mirrors. The entire structure creates the illusion of a star-filled night, adding to the subtle glamor of the space.

We choose a sauvignon blanc from the Veneto and an Orvieto classico from the eight whites and seven reds offered by the glass. The wine list at this time is small, with bottled wines priced from $18 to $50, appropriately heavy on the Italian offerings. I am told a larger, more progressive list is on the way.

We peruse the menu and choose from each of the four sections: appetizer, salad, intermezzo and entree. First, grilled clams ($9), and grape leaves stuffed with three cheeses ($6), then the roasted beets ($8) and grilled radicchio ($9). For intermezzo we try the creamy polenta with poached egg ($10). For an entree I order the grilled salmon ($18) and my friend orders the eight-ounce filet of beef ($28).

Other selections got away this time. For appetizers they offer capanatina, a traditional eggplant dish ($6), and favorites such as crispy calamari ($8), stuffed peppers ($6), roasted garlic ($5) and roasted artichokes with lobster salad ($11). You can enjoy caesar salad topped with calamari ($9) or flank steak ($11), or antipasto ($9). Pasta choices include homemade lobster and mascarpone ravioli ($16), pasta pommadoro ($9) and pasta with Tuscan meat sauce ($12). Entrees include roasted lemon chicken with potato gnocchi and rapini ($16), a 22-ounce bone-in ribeye ($30) and a 12-ounce veal chop with shaved fennel salad ($26).

Our appetizers arrive. The mouthwatering grilled clams are moist, with a lot of meat in their fat bellies. The broth, richly flavored with chorizo and tomato, is accentuated by fresh herbs. Extra crispy bread is given, and used, to soak up the broth. Grape leaves are divine in my book. Few places serve them, and DiGiulio does so with artistic flair. The three cheeses are gorgonzola, asiago and ricotta, whipped into a warm, creamy blend with a strong, tangy flavor, covered by the grape leaf pouch and drizzled with lovely pesto. Delicious!

DiGiulio’s salads can stand solely as a reason to eat here, incorporating fresh flavors and textures to create something special, not just “I think I’ll have a salad.” The beet salad was gorgeous. The deep garnet beets were topped with vibrant white goat cheese, crispy rings of grilled onion and finely cut fresh basil, and sprinkled with roasted pine nuts. Over this, balsamic freely crisscrossed. What exciting tastes! The grilled radicchio salad was half a purple radicchio head cut in two and stuffed with kalamata olives, sweet peppers and squares of fresh mozzarella. Pooled olive oil was dotted with fresh green spots of basil oil. Again, DiGiulio’s scores well in the visual element, with the taste far exceeding the lovely appearance.

As soon as we are done with the appetizers, the creamy polenta arrives. It is served in a square bowl with the polenta on the bottom. Atop rest various mushrooms, from shitake to baby bellas, crowned with a soft-cooked poached egg, generous truffle oil and minced arugula. The rich truffle oil wafts upward as you take your spoon, break the egg yoke and mix everything together. The entire creation is soft and soothing.

My friend’s filet, vertically arranged, sits on a base of mushroom bread pudding, topped with broccoli rabe. Circling the tower is a pool of red wine sauce and whole roasted shallots. The filet, cooked to medium rare, is juicy and tender. The bitter broccoli rabe contrasts with the sweet sauce. The soft nature of the earthy bread pudding joins all the elements together. My salmon dish, also well prepared and creative, was crisp from pan searing, pink and succulent within. Complementing the naturally oily fish are sweet beets, braised whole leek and beet vinaigrette thickened with basil cream.

I’ve been eyeing the house-made spumoni cake, so we take a deep breath and order dessert. Normally a traditional Italian frozen dessert, here they have transformed it into a cake. Alternating cherry and chocolate cake is layered with pistachio mousse, creating a festive, fun look. A forkful reveals it is not all looks; it tastes great, too.

DiGiulio’s is an excellent addition to the flourishing restaurant scene on Hertel. This is no “mom and pop” Italian restaurant. When I spoke with Chef Dunbar Berdine, he was hesitant to associate his cooking with one region of Italy alone. He takes ideas from both the north and the south to create his own unique dishes. The result is food which is composed, sophisticated and imaginative, without losing the element of comfort associated with Italian cuisine. The service is top-notch, the ambience thoroughly enjoyable, and the prices are very reasonable for what you receive. You will find, after your first visit, that this is a place to return to often.