Cobble Hill

Smith Street finally gets a regional Italian restaurant

April 17, 2023 Andrew Cotto
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COBBLE HILL — This reporter remembers when Smith Street was a no-no. There was one restaurant worth going to, and you went early and ate fast. It’s hard to imagine the veritable restaurant row that Smith Street has become this century, a smorgasbord of cuisines in a carousel of openings and closings. Historically missing from this gastronomic landscape, surprisingly enough, is regional Italian cuisine, though this has changed, in a big way — thanks to a non-restaurateur with a mission — with the recent arrival of Savelli, a restaurant, bar and brick oven pizza place at 195 Smith St.

Savelli’s owner, Dominic Palumbo, is a classic example of the American Dream. At 11 years old, he immigrated with his father to Brooklyn from Reggio Calabria, leaving the rest of the family in Italy. While the father struggled to make ends meet, the young Palumbo dropped out of school and went to work at a fruit and vegetable stand in Bensonhurst. He continued working, hard and well, around the borough throughout his adolescence, saving enough money to eventually buy his own produce market and soon invested in real estate as a young man. Let’s just say that Palumbo did well enough in his real estate endeavors over the subsequent decades to open an Italian restaurant as a service to the community.

Arancini is among the Southern Italian staples. Photo: Andrew Cotto.

“I come from the south of Italy,” Palumbo said. “I know the way the food’s supposed to taste, and what I’ve found around here was not even close.”

So Savelli – in it’s cavernous space (designed and built by Palumbo with his own hands over the course of two years) of brick walls and marble floors, a stamped copper ceiling, details of wood and stone that extend from the glass and wood facade, past the bar and pizza oven, to the atrium in back — is regional southern Italian food as it’s supposed to taste.

Savelli’s owner, Dominic Palumbo, tastes his own menu regularly. Photo: Andrew Cotto.

And that taste is determined by Palumbo who eats at the bar on a regular basis and approves every new item before it goes on the menu.

And the menu, either a la carte or through three prix-fixe options, has the staples of regional southern Italian cuisine. This includes polpette, fritto misto, arancini as antipasti; an array of salads; pastas, such as pappardelle Bolognese, linguini alla vongole (clams), orecchiette with broccoli rabe & salsicce (sausage); and main courses of fish, chicken, veal or beef. There’s also an extensive pizza menu.

Savelli’s pizza oven is hard at work. Photo: Andrew Cotto.

What distinguishes Palumba’s menu at Savelli is not the familiar offerings but the quality of the ingredients and the preparation. This is not only someone who knows southern Italian cuisine, being from one of the regions, but also someone who spent years working with produce where quality is a prerequisite of success, which is something Palumba clearly has achieved both in his life and in his restaurant.

The atrium at Savelli. Photo: Andrew Cotto.

“I didn’t do this because I want to make money,” Palumba said. “This is something that I enjoy doing and something I want to do to give the people an understanding of what Italian cooking is all about. I don’t care about anything else.”

Validation of Palumba’s mission was provided by Emmy-nominated cooking show host, Cara Di Falco, who recently dined at Savelli as a destination. “I’m from Jersey, so I don’t often come to the city for Italian restaurants,” Ms. Di Falco said. “But a trusted friend encouraged me to come all the way to Brooklyn, and I must admit it was worth the trip.”

Andrew Cotto has been eating his way through Brooklyn for 25 years. As an author, the food of our borough has been featured extensively in his novels and journalism. In his new column for the Daily Eagle, Andrew will tell the tales of Brooklyn eateries, from the people behind the food to the communities which they nourish.

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