As rents multiply in the most desirable dining areas — including the East Village, Williamsburg, Crown Heights, NoMad, and the Lower East Side — new restaurants are popping up in unexpected locales. The latest area to attract ambitious restaurateurs is upper Broadway north of 145th Street, west of Sugar Hill, in a neighborhood sandwiched between Hamilton Heights and Washington Heights that as yet has no catchy name. Partly partaking of the Parisian boulevard glamor of the Upper West Side, it still remains a bustling Dominican neighborhood, characterized by dollar discount stores and restaurants deliciously specializing in roast pernil. But gradually, upper Broadway is becoming speckled with coffee bars, gastropubs, and ambitious new restaurants.
A prime example is Bono Trattoria (no relation to the Irish rock star). It was started by a pair of Italians, one from Sicily (Graziella LoBrutto), the other from Umbria (Luca Valeriania). Located in a wide and deep corner space, it previously housed a liquor store with Plexiglas barriers and a fine selection of half-pint pocket flasks. Now, the front and side walls have been flung open to late-summer breezes, the ceiling paved with nostalgic stamped tin, and a wood-burning beehive oven installed mid-restaurant. The whitewashed walls are lined with Italian movie stills, and the place seats around 60 at raised tables, conventional two-tops, and at a bar opposite the oven — creating a bottleneck that is the restaurant's chief design flaw.
The menu offers some of the finest pizzas north of 125th in the currently popular Naples style. The margherita glistens with a plainish tomato sauce and a creamy mozzarella. At $10, the pie is cheaper than similar renditions downtown and in Brooklyn, and every bit as good. (In Greenwich Village, Keste charges $16. Lower rents in disparate locations mean cheaper prices.) Another favorite is fichi ($12), flooded with salty gorgonzola and dotted with pancetta and quartered fresh figs that provide a touch of sweetness and spill their seeds onto the white cheese blanket. Damn, these pizzas are good! Seven more are available.
Focaccia ripiena is like a cross between a calzone and a bar-style quesadilla
Even better than the pizza is a sideline called focaccia ripiena ("stuffed bread"), which is like a cross between a calzone and a bar-style quesadilla. The best jams sweet pork sausage and spinach between its puffy and yeasty layers. It's priced at only $8 for four sizeable wedges served in a basket, making a perfect starter. This stuffed pizza is reminiscent of roadside stands in the Umbrian countryside selling flatbread sandwiches called torta al testo. In fact, many dishes on Bono's menu are attributable to the Italian regions the owners came from.
Inspired by the same region, strozzapreti alla Norcina ($13) is named after the remote village of Norcia in Umbria's far southeastern corner, 42 kilometers over winding mountain roads from Spoleto. The village is known as the hog-butchering capital of Italy, and wonderful salamis, sausages, and cured hams are created there. It is also an area where black summer truffles and porcini mushrooms are found in abundance. All these go together to make Bono's strozzapreti — twisted double-hanks of noodle whose name translates to "priest stranglers," illustrating the humor often found in Italian food. The al dente pasta is tossed in a truffle cream sauce with crumbled sweet sausage and porcinis, altogether one of the best dishes I've eaten all summer.
The other co-owner is undoubtedly responsible for the menu's Sicilian flourishes, including the single wood-oven-charred octopus tentacle that constitutes the most commendable app. Other dishes we might associate with the southern reaches of Italy include eggplant parmigiana; a Sicilian pizza with eggplant, cherry tomatoes, and mozzarella; and fettuccine alla boscaiola ("hunter's fettuccine"), a very rich pasta with onions, asparagus, and pancetta in a sauce thickened with eggs. But whatever region is evoked, Bono tends to get the dishes right.
There are a couple of exceptions, of course. Rather than offering a conventional Caprese salad — one of the world's most perfect preparations — Bono gums things up by adding pesto and grilled peaches to the usual ripe tomatoes, mozzarella, and leaf basil. And there's nothing seemingly Italian about the roasted beet salad with herbed goat cheese, which has become so commonplace on bistro menus it only serves to provoke a yawn. The ribeye steak and roast half chicken were substandard, too: the former because it was overdone and not that great a piece of meat to begin with, the latter because it had a reheated mushiness on the day I tried it. Perhaps the menu attempts too much.
Still, Bono is overall a very good restaurant, especially if you stick with the apps, pizzas, and pastas. Which is actually good advice where nearly every Italian restaurant is concerned. Almost invariably, higher-priced secondi are for suckers.
Cost: Dinner for two, including app, pasta, and pizza, with two glasses of wine, $60 with tax but not tip.
Sample dishes: Grilled octopus, salumi e formaggi (cured meat and cheese platter), margherita and fichi pizzas, strozzapreti alla Norcina
What to drink: Two bottles stand out on the wine list, both for quirky and charming flavor and bargain prices: a Barone Fini Pinot Grigio from the Alto Adige ($32 per bottle), a crisp and unusual expression of the grape, and Dama Marammiero Montepulciano D'Abbruzo ($35 per bottle), nice saturated red to go with your rich pasta.
Bonus tip: This is a great place to use simply as a pizzeria, drinking beer and downing slices.