Rio By Way of Liguria

Carla Pellegrino adds Bratalian to her restaurant dynasty

Carla Pellegrino is a hot commodity. Apparently she didn’t realize how hot, until a standing-room-only crowd showed up on a recent Saturday night at her new restaurant, Bratalian.

The name was chosen to pay homage to the two great loves of her life: Italian cooking and her native Brazil. On less frenetic evenings she can be seen in her chef’s whites, chatting up locals who met her when she was executive chef at Rao’s in Caesars Palace.

She spent that particular evening behind the line in the kitchen, where her sister, Alessandra Madeira, handles the bulk of the cooking chores with aplomb. Walter Ciccone, the normally unflappable host, is married to Madeira, but that evening, his demeanor was all-hands-on-deck.

Things have settled down now, and Bratalian is already one of—if not the—best neighborhood Italian restaurants in the Valley. That’s more of a surprise when one considers these modest digs and that Gaetano’s is a few blocks down the road. It’s cozy in here, the ceiling draped with colorful laundry like a Naples street scene, and posters of Italy hang on the canary-yellow walls. The décor proves that it’s not impossible to do a place on the cheap and still make it pleasant. The bar takes up much of the room, and that’s good because it seems the chef’s friends often hang out here to nibble and socialize.

The chef’s cooking is old-school and first rate. You don’t come to Bratalian for crudo—the Japanese-influenced raw fish that dominates the appetizer list in restaurants such as B&B or Valentino—and trendy entrées like bottarga (gray mullet roe) or faraona (imported Guinea fowl), remain a foreign language in this restaurant.

What you will get is solid, delicious southern Italian cooking with the occasional Tuscan dish sprinkled in. Fagiole, cipolle e tonno is such a dish. It’s a delicate white bean, onion and tuna salad, dressed in olive oil and lemon juice. A dish of baked clams is the other side of the coin. You’ll have to dig for these clams, not in sand, but in an herbal stuffing redolent of garlic and oregano. It’s worth the effort.

Bratalian’s pastas don’t miss a beat. Spaghetti and meatballs is a dish no self-respecting Italian would order, but they’d be wrong. Pellegrino made Rao’s famous meatballs, and these taste like the same recipe, using beef, pork and veal. Penne alla arrabbiata demonstrates how thrilling simple ingredients such as chili, garlic and parsley can be.

Main courses do not disappoint: Salsicce and pepperoni, another dish similar to what I ate at Rao’s, features hot and sweet sausages seared in a stew of onions, red and yellow bell peppers.. Magnifico! My favorite is probably scalloppine alla saltimbocca, thinly pounded veal topped with cheese, prosciutto and sage, cooked in a sauté pan.

The chef does a mean pollo Milanese, and her rosemary potatoes are impeccably crisp and steamy at the same time. For dessert, there is a delicious torta di ricotta, a frothy cheesecake.

Contrary to what the name might imply, as you may have noticed, Bratalian is not Brazilian-Italian fusion. Her focus is, as ever, trained squarely on Italian cuisine. However, Pellegrino says that soon, there will be a few Brazilian dishes on weekends at brunch. Just don’t bother to ask for Rao’s celebrated lemon chicken. Unless you make her an offer she can’t refuse, you can fugeddaboudit.

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