BRANFORD — Last week, Gambero Rosso, the world’s foremost authority on Italian food, wine, and travel, recognized Strega Restaurant in Branford for its excellence in authentic Italian cuisine.
It’s the first time it’s bestowed such an award on an Italian restaurant in Connecticut, according to Strega owner Danilo Mongillo.
“We are so happy,” he said. “We are thrilled.”
According to Mongillo, it’s no coincidence that, a few months ago, a 28-year-old world-renowned chef quietly took his place in Strega’s kitchen. His mission: to create dishes that you’d discover while traveling through Italy.
The chef is Marco Giugliano, who opened his first restaurant when he was 20. After working his way through the ranks in Italy, Greece, and Spain, he was tapped as Executive Chef at Quattro Passi in London’s Mayfair District and Taverna Estia in Brusciano, Italy. Both added highly coveted Michelin stars, one of the highest honors given in the restaurant industry, under his watch.
As it happens, a younger brother of Mongillo is Giugliano’s best friend. Both of Mongillo’s younger brothers, coincidentally, are also celebrated chefs — one in Moscow, the other in London. The brothers grew up in Puglianello, a sleepy village in the province of Benevento.
“It’s a farm town of 1,000 people,” said the charismatic 35-year-old in his signature flat cap on a recent afternoon at the Main Street restaurant across from Branford Jewelers. “My parents owned a butcher shop. The meat came from my family farm. We killed the animal and the same day the meat is for sale. Same for cheese, milk, vegetables.”
Sometimes, when his parents worked late, Mongillo cooked dinner for his younger brothers. “Pasta, broth and eggs, a little parmigiana. Everyone cooked,” he said. “You watched and you learned. It’s like a chain.”
Following a three-year tenure in Afghanistan with the Italian army, he took a position as a police officer in the Ministry of Agriculture investigating violations against Italy’s strict regional product controls on food, wine, and cheese.
“It’s a way to guarantee the product is from a certain region in Italy,” he said. “Every step, from the production, to the traditional ingredients, to the way it’s packaged, is regulated.”
It was a steady job, but Mongillo missed his wife Rosanna, a Sicilian native who was studying graphic design at Southern Connecticut State University. In 2014, he decided to take a year off in New Haven. There, he said, “I missed my food.” That was when he began to consider opening a restaurant.
“It would serve the food I missed, the food I loved, the food I grew up on,” he said. “It would be an adventure.”
There were a few early bumps when, in late 2016, Strega opened in the Main Street space formerly occupied by Brunello’s.
What the restaurant was offering, it seemed, wasn’t the Italian cuisine its customers were expecting. Where was the chicken parmesan? The garlic bread? The pepperoni pizza? As for the pizza, it didn’t even look like one. Or taste like one.
“People were asking for things that were here already,” Mongillo said. “We wanted to introduce them to something else.”
Judging from the group that thronged the lively space on an early-March Friday night, the Shoreline population, it seems, has come around. One of those diners, Lucy Camarda of Branford’s Lucy’s Tailor, who spent her first 16 years in Benevento’s tiny Puglianello, perhaps put it best.
“It tastes like Benevento,” she said, as she dug into the Osso Buco.
No doubt the recent arrival of Giugliano has been a factor.
“We kept in touch,” Mongillo said. “He came with his wife last April to see the area and loved it. He met my wife, my son [Samuele, 3], he saw something that made him want to stay. He wanted to be a part of this.”
Another factor: an emphasis on seasonal ingredients that hearkens back to his life in Puglianello — and on the freshness and strict quality control that informed his work in the Ministry of Agriculture.
“You have to wait for the right time of year,” Mongillo said. “You can find corn in January here, bananas from Chile. No way. It’s not the right time. It’s not fresh. You wait. But every month we have something different. So in winter there is meat, sausage, prosciutto, and beans and soup. For summer there is Pesto alla Genovese.”
That philosophy likely explains why Mongillo named his restaurant Strega, which is Italian for witch.
“For us, in Benevento, the witch is nothing else but the women who take care of the population, with the herbs, the roots, the simple and natural ingredients that are seasonal and healthy,” he said. “These are the women who feed us, who keep us strong and with energy.”
In that connection, there’s also the hospitality that radiates through the space, according to Sylvia Ionoro, a Friday night regular.
“Danilo and Rosanna are genuinely lovely people,” she said. “Everyone — the servers, the bartender, the customers — seems to feed off that.”
Shelly Johnson agreed. “You feel at home,” she said, as she prepared to sample the antipasto Misto, an assortment of Italian cured meats and cheeses, which Mongillo, a sommelier, had paired with an Aglianico wine imported from Benevento.
“This is the way we are in Italy,” Mongillo said. “All together, all friends, together, around the table, enjoying a meal. This is all part of offering an original experience of a town in the Naples’ area.”
That kind of authenticity is no more apparent than in Strega’s popular Neapolitan pizza that was, in December 2017, designated by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity—basically, a wonder of the world.
The art of the pizzaiuoli — preparing and flipping the dough, and then topping it and baking it in a wood-fired oven — has been handed down for centuries, according to Mongillo. The result is an individual pizza that’s famously light and digestible.
In a rare concession, Strega slices its pizza. (In Italy you eat it with a knife and fork.)
But that’s about it.
Just ask regular Jim Camuti of Branford. “I’ve been to Italy numerous times,” he said. “I guess you could say I’m an aficionado. What they do at Strega is equal to or better than anything I’ve tasted there.”
Apparently, no less than the world’s authority on Italian cuisine agrees.