Two noteworthy things happened to me on my birthday. 1) I decided to become a wine writer and 2) I received a lovely and surprising fleeting kiss from a stranger. It was lovely exactly because it was surprising and fleeting. The next morning, I woke up a new person with a fully composed vision in my head: I would immerse myself in the world of food and wine for a new writing project. As a poet who had long been writing spare and depressing poems about her father’s battle with dementia, this decision could not have come too soon. I was ready to have some fun! The kiss from the stranger sealed the deal by reminding me to seize the moment. A few days later, my friend D’arcy came over. After laughing about the kiss, we hatched a plan to visit a new restaurant every month for my new blog.
On Saturday, May 25th, a month after D’arcy’s visit, we, and our friend Carolyn, were on our way to West Springfield, MA for a meal at bNapoli, a high-end yet casual Italian restaurant touting the use of locally sourced ingredients Google-able under “Best Italian Restaurants in western MA.” They have a slick website, which promises a fun and foodie kind of evening. I wanted Italian because earlier that day, Carolyn and I were attending a wine class featuring Tuscan wines at my favorite shop, Provisions. It only seemed fitting to eat Italian after drinking Italian wines. D’Arcy agreed to pick us up after the class and bring us to dinner.
I hadn’t been to West Springfield in forever, but the last time I was there, I saw a play at The Majestic, a small professional theater on the main street in town away from the nightmare that is Riverdale Road. bNapoli is less than a block away from the theater, so dinner and a show would be a perfect date night.
They do have valet service, by the way, but we saw plenty of street parking nearby, so we just slid into a spot a few steps away from the front door.
I had made reservations for 6:15, but because the wine class let out a little late and D’arcy, too, had been running behind, I called and asked to change them to 6:30. “No problem,” the man on the phone said, but I was afraid we’d end up sitting around while they scrambled to find a place for us, now that we had messed with the schedule. But, no. We arrived and were greeted by Jerry, the owner (though we didn’t know that yet), who immediately crossed us off his list and said, “Follow me.” Jerry is a tall, lean man with classic Italian features, and at the risk of totally objectifying him, as he led us through the already-busy restaurant to our table, D’arcy turned to me and said, “I’d follow that man into a trash can” to which I totally agreed. He was very nice to look at and had a gracious, wide smile. Later, we learned that Jerry had some years ago come to the U.S. from Italy and opened a small pizzeria next door. For several years, he worked and slept in the pizzeria, which had a small apartment in the back. Eventually, he earned enough to buy the space where bNapoli stands now and literally built the interior by himself, at least that’s the story our waiter told us. Seeing Jerry move through the restaurant with that big smile took on new meaning. This place was his baby.
It wasn’t clear exactly how much influence Jerry had on the menu because the chef was a local well-known whose name I have forgotten. Apparently, he’s mentored many local chefs and shows his own skills here. But I am guessing if Jerry isn’t cooking, he is at least advising.
bNapoli is fairly bright with a large front window looking out onto the street. The design has a modern steel and linen look with clean lines. A nice long bar curves around one wall while the rest of the restaurant fills one room with approximately 40 tables. The atmosphere was lively and friendly, definitely not your typical New England affair where you sit quietly and wait to be served. Here you can feel free to laugh loudly and chatter all you want.
Our waiter, Tom, arrived quickly after Jerry left us, offering menus and water. It was an 80-degree day and humid, so we went with a bottle of sparkling and settled in. Tom told us that the bar was known for their cocktails, but since we had been drinking wine, we wanted to stick with it and see if we’d learned anything in the class when looking at their wine list. I’ll just say, I am a sucker for a good cocktail and am always on the look-out for a new place to try one, so I will be back for one of those hopefully soon. The wine list looks good, with way more reds than whites, and Carolyn and I did find a well-priced Chianti that would go with anything, so we went with that. Though, if I had to go back and do it again, I might have chosen a white knowing what we ended up having for dinner.
The menu offered five courses and a gourmet pizza selection. We ordered with this blog post in mind, choosing one thing from the appetizers, the antipasti, the salads, and the pastas, and each of us ordered a main course. We skipped the pizza because it feels like an after-thought on the menu, tucked below the entrées as a nod to Jerry’s humble beginnings perhaps.
First was the Arugula salad with preserved blood oranges, fennel, pomegranate essence, pistachios, and extra virgin olive oil. Ours also came with two bursting slices of bright pink watermelon radish. This salad was delicious, dressed mostly with the lightly sweet pomegranate essence, which had the texture of water, and a tiny bit of the olive oil. NO VINEGAR here, which was lovely. We could taste each of the ingredients in their natural state with the exception of the preserved oranges, which were bites of pure heaven, bright and unassuming against the spicy arugula.
Next came the Crostini with chicken liver mousse and foie gras. The foie gras was silk. Topped on the mousse with pickled mustard grains and a little chive, the bite was yummy. Though, I think I would have preferred it without the crostini, maybe in a small turine with the option of bread. As it was, the bread itself didn’t add much to the flavor or texture and was a bland carrier of a wonderful combination of flavors. I saw this kind of thing in Spain a lot last summer. Tapas dishes can often be spreads on bread where the bread is just in the way, in my opinion. But this was better than that. The chicken liver mousse was light and creamy, and I really enjoyed the crunchiness of the mustard.
My favorite might have been the Poached D’Angou Pear with prosciutto, aged balsamic, hazelnuts, and sweet gorgonzola in the middle of the pear. The pear was poached in port, so the dish is mostly sweet, but coupled with the gorgonzola and the prosciutto, it had a stinky or gamey character that I LOVED but which D’Arcy was not a fan. Carolyn thought the whole thing was just too sweet. I think she was right, but it didn’t bother me. This was an earthy dish attempting refinement, and I liked the push and pull it did between those two hemispheres. The pear itself sat in the middle of the plate surrounded by a blanket of prosciutto as if were the hem of the pear’s dress. It might be the perfect thing to get if you sit at the bar after the theater with a glass of wine or one of those cocktails. Skip the whole rest of the meal and just enjoy that as your after-theater treat.
We almost skipped the pasta, but D’Arcy had a theory that if a restaurant could do a basic dish really well, everything else was worth trying. So, we agreed to get the most simple pasta on the menu, the Bucatini Pomodoro. Bucatini is a long, hollow pasta that looks like a very thick string of spaghetti. Here, the texture of it was thick and almost doughy, much like homemade pastas served in Italy. I love that! The rest was DOP cherry tomatoes, basil, grana (a hard cheese) and extra virgin olive oil. I liked the flavors, but it felt like there was something missing. D’Arcy thought more basil. I thought possibly salt, of which there was none on the table. It did have a smokiness to it that I really liked, but I was looking for some brightness that wasn’t there. We also thought a nice experiment would be to see how it served as a leftover the next day, so we each just had a few bites and asked Tom to bag it for us.
Before I go on to the main courses, I should talk about Tom. While Jerry (oh my, I just saw that they are Tom and Jerry) may have been exceedingly handsome–when he came by several times to check in on us, we swooned–Tom was the backbone of our evening. I’ll admit, we made a big show of ourselves. We told Tom about the wine class, and as I took notes on each dish, D’Arcy snapped photos, none of which we did stealthily. We were just plain having fun and didn’t care who knew it. In our merriment, we asked all kinds of questions about the food, the wine, the restaurant’s history, and Tom was at the ready with all the answers. He was also at the ready with water, wine, and anything else we needed. Informed, friendly, and equally as interested in our food as we were, Tom was the perfect server. Handsome too, I might add, in a wholly American way.
He also helped when Carolyn informed him of her soy allergy, which led her to order the Atlantic Haddock for her main course. So, back to the food. Carolyn had the Haddock, and D’Arcy had decided on the Cioppino when she read the menu online two days before. That made two fish dishes, so I figured I should get something meaty. I decided on the Short Rib Ragu because whenever D’Arcy mentioned it, her eyes went wide talking about how they cook it with the bone marrow. Perhaps I was dazed by the swirl of activity, but nothing else was exactly striking my fancy, so I went with it.
All the meals were good, but the Atlantic Haddock stole the show. That fish tasted like it just came out of the ocean and jumped willingly into the pan. Placed on a bed of truffled mashed potatoes and lentils and topped with fennel, radish, and capers, the dish was a stunner, one of those where you taste it and everything else falls away. There could have been a man on stilts walking by playing trumpet and I would not have noticed. Carolyn thorough enjoyed it. I could tell because each time she took a bite, she was careful to construct it with all the ingredients, after which she would pop it delicately into her mouth and savor.
D’Arcy’s Cioppino was also good, but I tasted a shrimp from it that was overcooked. The real star of that dish was the tomato saffron broth, which D’Arcy perfectly described as an Italian mole. Dark, earthy, and spicy, it had the consistency of sea water but the color of dark red pepper flake. By the time she was finished with it, a fair amount of broth was the only thing left, which if she hadn’t taken home, I am sure she would have just drank straight from the bowl.
My Ragu was ok. Too heavy to eat much of, I ended up picking through the pasta at the short rib, which was melt-in-your-mouth tender, but which lacked a certain zing that the previous pasta dish had also lacked. Was it salt? My companions said no. They liked it as it was, but I was underwhelmed. The pasta, though, was terrific, a Gragnano Fusilli with a flavor and texture I’d never experienced before. I looked it up and Gragnano is an area in Italy with several important designations. It was the first place to mass produce pasta, but it was also designated by the King of Naples in the 1800’s as the only place in Italy allowed to grow wheat for the rest of the population. It had to do with the soil and the high elevation where the wheat is grown as well as the calcium-poor water of Monti Lattari, which is used in the dough. Today, Gragnano pasta is regulated by the government and must be produced in the designated terrain using the local water and must be dried in the open mountain air. It’s bad for me to know these things because it’ll mean I won’t ever buy pasta unless it is Gragnano again.
It’s unfathomable to me how, but we were not completely stuffed. So, in service of our mission, we decided to have dessert. We let Tom surprise us. He came back with a beautiful tower of chocolate and cream love. It was the Salame di Cioccolato, which translates into chocolate salami, I believe. Here’s why: the tower is built with a layer of mascarpone topped by a chocolate and hazelnut cookie followed by another thick layer of mascarpone another cookie and dark maraschino cherries. The cookie is an Italian version of an icebox cookie where you make the dough, roll it into a thick log, cover it with cellophane, and put it in the refrigerator. When you make cookies, you slice the log like a salami and bake the slices. It was good. I’m not into sweet sweet desserts, which this wasn’t. The mascarpone barely had any sugar, and the cookie itself wasn’t overpoweringly sweet either. The cherries in their sauce were the sugariest thing on the plate, and they were delicious.
And then! A surprise gift from Tom! Three cold little glasses filled with a rich amber cider. I’m not usually a fan of ciders, but this one from Vermont, Eden Ciders’ “Heirloom” Barrel Aged Ice Cider, was sooooo good. It had the heft of a liqueur without all the alcohol and a bright apple finish that popped in your mouth. It was a perfect ending.
Our trip to bNapoli was not only delicious but seriously fun. After the long New England winter, I needed the wining and dining, the laughter, the girl’s night out, and this was the exact right place. I want to go back next weekend, hang out at the bar, and be one of those customers who knows all the wait staff by name. It was like being at a party with insanely good food and drink and bright, intelligent company. You never want to leave!