I grew up in New Jersey, which is to say when I would go to restaurants you were greeted with a basket of bread as quickly as you were a Buona Sera. Moving to New York, I was saddened to learn that most restaurants, even some Italian ones, did not uphold this tradition of my youth. I get it: running a restaurant in this city is an extremely fickle and expensive business. If you can skip the carbs and save what amounts to, I’m sure, thousands of dollars a year, why wouldn’t you?
How refreshing, then, that bread is not just a starter at Borsalia, but an art to perfect, a gift to share. This Italian catch-all — bakery, café, and restaurant — is now open at 79 Grand Street, a quieter nook in Williamsburg far from the Bedford Avenue crowds but near enough to the East River to offer waterfront views for those dining in the outdoor tent. The bestowed breads were increasingly complex and flavorful: first, a large, rectangular cracker-like palette cleanser; then, classic bread sticks — with a hint of butter, and firm with a nice snap — blooming out of a wine glass; and finally, specialty focaccias prepared that day. Warm and caky, the two featured when I stopped by for a weekend brunch were a saffron and tumeric focaccia with olives and a tomato-pumpkin one sprinkled with chunky, flaky salt. Both were scrumptious and filling enough to be meals unto themselves.
But to just enjoy the bread is to miss other treats on this small but mighty food menu where plates almost take a back seat to the vast number of cappuccinos, coffees, and affogatos on display. (So many kinds are there that a chandelier dangles from the interior’s ceiling with each of the light bulbs instead operating as glass tubes encasing various coffee beans.) For my meal, I went with the focaccia bread toasted with truffle butter and topped with cooked ham and sunny-side eggs. Its side salad was well-dressed, and the rich, aromatic truffle-infused bread nicely juxtaposed the fresh greens. At $22, this was the most expensive item on the menu.
The dessert menu is as extensive as the food and coffee one. (A third menu — for wines — also exists but, unsurprisingly, I didn’t have room to explore it, though it hosts a robust selection of Italians by the glass and bottle, all at reasonable rates.) The website notes that Borsalia’s chefs are winners of the prestigious International Chocolate Awards, and the desserts do not contradict. In many flavors and shapes, the chocolates teasingly sit under glass and are only overshadowed by the larger, more colorful pastries that spotlight pistachio, fig, and passionfruit toppings, among other exciting ingredients.
The attentive staff is bolstered by owner Cristiano Rossi, a gregarious and bona fide presence, bringing Italian savvy and a genuine love for people and foods to his welcoming new restaurant. Another Borsalia is slated to open in Manhattan, but for now, the new kid on the block is quickly winning over neighbors and brunch-hunters on the hunt for winning breads and authentic, transportive coffees and sweets. Benvenuto.