Today we stop by The Owl’s Head, a wine bar featuring an ever-changing array of seasonal bottles and bites in Bay Ridge, a bastion of old school Brooklyn that hasn’t exactly been swept up in the farm-to-table tide that’s inundated neighborhoods to the north.
Owl’s Head owner John Avelluto likes nothing more than finding the perfect pairing for a great glass of wine with a small plate packed with big, bold flavors. On this visit, he recommends a spicy, savory crostini with a lush New York State Riesling.
So John, what do you think? Suggestions for a nice pairing?
I think it would be nice to do a little crostini paired with a glass of a really nice New York State Riesling that we just got in. The crostini I’d like to make for you is called ‘The Italian.’ Sometimes we do it as a panini, today we’ll do it as a crostini. It’s basically a spicy pesto with fresh ricotta and what we call our ‘baconized’ sopressata, on toast. It’s very simple to make, but it’s loaded with flavors that work really well with the Riesling.
Tell us about it.
We start with the bread. We get our bread from Il Fornaretto in Bensonhurst, which is one of the oldest Italian bakeries around. The bread is excellent. I grew up on this stuff. We slice the bread, and put them on the panini press with a little extra virgin olive oil, a little pepper and salt, and leave them on there until they get a little crisp on the outside, some grill marks for that char flavor, but are still nice and soft in the center.
Then we have something called Nonna’s Red Pesto. It’s made with sun-dried tomatoes, basil, garlic, anchovy, habanero peppers, anchovies, lemon vinegar and olive oil. It’s made by a Brooklyn company called Spicy ‘N Sweet. It’s a guy named Michael who grew up here with his Italian parents and grandparents, his grandmother – Nonna Carolina – who came over from Calabria and is an amazing cook, and a friend of Michael’s named Jorge, who’s from Venezuela originally.
They get their tomatoes, basil, garlic and peppers from farmers in New York and New Jersey. All really great ingredients. It’s very densely flavored. It’s very spicy with a lot of heat, and that appealed to us. We like using products that have a lot of spice and acidity but are balanced and contained, for pairing with wines. When you have something with those sorts of flavors, you have to match it with a wine that’s really big and lush. And when the pairing is right, it can be pretty great. Those flavors with that sort of wine can work really nicely together.
We’re always looking for great products that we can use as is, without having to add anything or reduce to intensify the flavors or that sort of thing, since we don’t really have a kitchen here. We’re always looking for things we can use to make great small dishes, as simply as possible, to pair with our wines. This pesto just really stood out. So we put a little bit of the sauce on the bread. Just a little bit, because we don’t want to overpower the wine.
Then we soften it up a little bit with some fresh Calabro ricotta. It’s a great, cool, creamy, sweet Ricotta. Calabro was started by a Sicilian family in Bridgeport, Connecticut in the 50’s. The cool, creamy, sweet and rich ricotta pushes back against the heat and acidity of the pesto. It creates a nice balance.
And we top it off with what we call our ‘baconized’ sopressata. We take the ends of all our sopressata – the parts left over when we’ve used them all up and can’t get a nice slice off them anymore. We actually use the ends of all our cured meats – chorizo, boar, speck, slice them really thin, put them in the oven, and wait for them to get a little crispy and for all those fats to start rendering and the flavors and spices to meld together, and then we take them out and chop them again so they become these little crisp and tender bites of spiced meat. And that brings a totally different, really savory element to the crostini.
So you end up having the heat from the habanero, all these very deeply savory flavors from the sun dried tomato and anchovy in the pesto and the baconized sopressata, and they work really well in combination with the cool, creamy, sweet ricotta.
It’s very simple for us to make, but it’s got a lot of powerful flavor.
And what about the wine?
I like to pair this with a lush, rich, round white – just the kind of white I like to feature at this time of year. To me, the perfect match for these big, spicy, savory flavors is a Riesling. We have a really nice 2011 New York State Riesling from Fox Run, in Penn Yann, New York, along the shores of Seneca Lake. It’s not a single vineyard wine – it’s made with grapes from three of their fields.
It’s what they call an off-dry white. So it’s a little sweet, but dry at the same time. It’s not cloying. You get a lot of apricot, and some nice jasmine in it. It’s forward with the fruit, but it has a kind of middle layer of minerality and a little bit of acidity to balance it out. It’s nicely aromatic. You don’t get that petrol note that you get with a lot of Rieslings. It’s very well balanced. Well made.
So the wine works really nicely with the ricotta in the crostini to wrap the really spicy and savory flavors of the pesto and the meat in a lush kind of sweetness and coolness that makes the whole pairing come together. It’s like a full rainbow of flavors. Everything coming at you.
How did you come to be doing this?
I’m from an Italian family, so I grew up around food and wine. I’m from Gravesend. When my father first came here from Italy he worked at a red sauce Italian place in Little Italy. In 1990 he left there to open up his own place on the Upper East Side, called Mazzei, after this Italian guy Philip Mazzei who was a close friend of Thomas Jefferson.
Eventually he moved the restaurant to Port Chester, where it is now. It’s called Hostaria Mazzei. I worked with him at both locations from the time I was young, doing everything from being the coffee boy to bussing, running, waiting tables, and going to the Hunts Point and Fulton Fish markets in the middle of the night.
I learned a lot of about the business of running a restaurant and bar as a waiter and later as a manager. They have like fourteen specials on the menu most nights and we had to memorize them and understand each one, and we had to learn how to communicate what was interesting about the specials to the customers. That taught me a lot about food. And that’s where I first thought about opening something of my own someday.
I went to high school in Bay Ridge, and I moved here when I was in grad school for fine art at Brooklyn College. I’m a painter. I lived here and had my studio here. Whenever I wanted to go out to eat or have a glass of wine, if I wanted anything other than a sports bar or a slice of pizza, I had to go to Cobble Hill or the Lower East Side or someplace. I just thought, look, Bay Ridge is Brooklyn. I can’t be the only one here who doesn’t want to have to take the R train to another neighborhood to try some nice wines, right? Why can’t we have something here?
I started working at Long’s Wines here in Bay Ridge, and I kept trying to figure out whether a wine bar would work. I talked to people at Long’s about wines. We had over a thousand wines in stock, and we had a lot of great boutique style wines – interesting wines. I started talking to people about those wines and found that people were listening. They were interested and they were trying new wines and they were coming back and talking about them and asking more questions and trying new things.
I started asking people, “Would you go to a wine bar in the neighborhood?” And people were like, “Yeah. I’d kill for a wine bar in the neighborhood!” So we realized there was a lot of interest and we decided to do it.
We’re really happy to be here, and really happy to have discovered there are so many people in the neighborhood who like good wine and good food, and that now none of us have to leave the neighborhood for it anymore. [laughter.]
The Owl’s Head is located at 479 74th Street, between 4th and 5th Avenues, in Bay Ridge.
Photography by Heather Phelps Lipton. All rights reserved.