If all Italian food means to you is spaghetti and meatballs or penne alla vodka, then listen up. Traditional Italian cuisine has a rich history with so much to offer, and there are many restaurants waiting — one of which is right in Stony Brook’s backyard. Two colleagues and I had the pleasure of dining at Pietro Cucina Italiana in Saint James. While there were a few minor issues, we had a wonderful meal that will keep us coming back for more.
As we walked into the beautiful farmhouse-turned-restaurant, we were greeted by their friendly service team, who seated us in their clean, homey dining room.
We started with the saffron short rib arancini. The deep-fried balls of risotto turned out to be the low point of the night. The rice was overcooked and mushy. It tasted completely bland with the saffron, and the short rib ragu was not detectable at all. This was a shame because these flavors, when executed well, work wonderfully together. The fry on it was decent but could have been a bit crispier. It was served with a tomato sauce which was just as bland. The sauce was watery and under-seasoned, which is a shame because arancini is one of my favorite dishes. Thankfully, the food improved significantly from there on.
Our second appetizer was the Portuguese grilled octopus. The braised octopus tentacle was tender with a slight bit of char from the grill. It was accompanied by lettuce, roasted potatoes and fresh tomatoes which all paired nicely with the meat. Grilled octopus is one of my favorite dishes, so I had some pretty high expectations going in. I prefer mine in a Spanish style with a bit more spice and a velvety sauce; regardless, this version was fresh, enjoyable and a nice transition into the entrees.
Our second appetizer was their Portuguese grilled octopus. The braised octopus tentacle was tender with a slight bit of char from the grill. It was accompanied by lettuce, roasted potatoes and fresh tomatoes which all paired nicely with the meat. Grilled octopus is one of my favorite dishes, so I had some pretty high expectations going in. I prefer mine in a Spanish style with a bit more spice and a velvety sauce; regardless, this version was fresh, enjoyable and a nice transition into the entrees.
This was where the meal shined. I got the veal tortellini in cream sauce (tortelloni di vitello), and my companions the porcini mushroom gnocchi (gnocchi con porcini) and pumpkin cheese ravioli (mezzelune con zucca).
The veal tortellini was remarkably well balanced, with each flavor complementing the other. The cream sauce was rich and velvety with cubes of prosciutto and green peas clinging on. The prosciutto added pleasant bursts of salty umami with the peas providing a nice textural contrast. Everything from the pasta to the filling to the sauce was perfectly seasoned. I prefer my pasta rolled a tad thinner, but the thickness of it provided more chew that will cater to other people’s preferences nicely. Either way, we thoroughly enjoyed this dish. Thankfully, this momentum carried on to the next dish.
The gnocchi in cream sauce with porcini mushrooms, shaved parmigiano cheese and a touch of white truffle oil was wonderful. The gnocchi was soft, pillowy and perfectly cooked. The sauce was rich with the porcini adding a subtle umami flavor. The shaved parmigiano brought a nice nutty, salty tang. In my opinion, finishing the dish with white truffle oil was not necessary but it did add another layer to it. Truffle oils have a habit of easily overpowering other flavors so I’m glad the chefs exercised restraint.
Moving on to what was probably the most perplexing dish of the night: the ravioli. On paper, this dish should have worked. A sweet, earthy pumpkin filling (reminiscent of butternut squash) with a contrasting rich and funky cheese in a light butter sauce topped with crisp amaretti crumbs sounds like a pairing that would naturally go well together. Unfortunately, the dish fell flat for us. The sweetness of the filling was a bit overpowering. The tang that the taleggio cheese provided, while not too strong, was just not for us.
These entrees were accompanied by a side of truffle parmesan fries which were quite delicious. The potatoes were perfectly fried and crisp. The seasoning was on point, with the parmesan coating each and every fry. While the white truffle oil was a tad overpowering for my taste, it received no complaints from my dinner mates.
Capping our meal was a duo of desserts: tiramisu and panna cotta. Both were delicious, with the tiramisu being my favorite. It wasn’t too sweet, which was appreciated. The light and fluffy mascarpone with the soft and spongy ladyfinger biscuits was a decadent textural dream. I would have liked more espresso flavor, but that may be on account of my crippling coffee addiction. The panna cotta was incredibly custardy with a light and silky-smooth consistency. I suspect the gelatin did not have enough time to properly set because it was slightly uneven. Either way, these two desserts were a delightful way to conclude our meal.
Looking more into the restaurant, I was intrigued by how it was run and operated. I was lucky enough to speak with owner Chef Pietro Molendini over the phone about their day-to-day operations. “[We] make all of their pasta in-house every other day,” he said. The pastas included stuffed pasta such as “ravioli and lune” to traditional pasta including “pappardelle, tagliatelle, gnocchi and rigatoni.”
As someone who has made pasta by hand both at home and in professional kitchens, I can tell you it’s no easy feat. It takes a tremendous amount of practice to get each batch of pasta perfectly consistent and can be quite labor-intensive, so I respect any restaurant that executes that day in and day out.
Pietro was also happy to discuss his team’s commitment to sourcing ingredients from the best possible locations. “We get the freshest we can, importing ingredients from Italy and Sicily,” he said.
His website mirrors this sentiment, revealing that the restaurant locally sources its meat from the Bronx and burrata from New Jersey.
Molendini has spent 30 years in the industry perfecting his craft, and it definitely shows in his methodology and execution of delicious food. His menu changes twice a year. One menu for the hot seasons and one for the cold seasons give customers plenty of opportunities to taste what Molendini is capable of.
We had a wonderful time at Pietro Cucina Italiana. I highly recommend this restaurant to anyone who loves classic Italian cuisine with a refreshingly-modern twist. Although it is quite pricey, I think it is well worth it for the amount of skill and care that goes into each dish. I would happily come back for a special occasion or to explore what they have to offer outside of pasta and give different appetizers a try. And definitely save room for dessert.
I was intrigued when I saw a restaurant review from the Statesman in my news feed. I had never seen a Statesman article picked up before.
As a SUNY SB alum, I was quite proud of professional quality of the review. Well written with obvious knowledge of cuisine to back it up.
Best yet I now have a new restaurant to try.