Gocciolina – Italian for “droplet,” the word is undeniably a quirky name for a restaurant. Ask owner/chef Aaron Benjamin if it refers to the restaurant’s small but excellent selection of Italian wines, and he responds, “You could say that, but mainly I just like the sound of the word.”
It does have a catchy musical sound, once you know how to pronounce it (GOH-choh-LEE-nah), And if you’re wondering where Benjamin became charmed by such an obscure Italian word, the answer lies in northern Italy, where he spent a year honing his skills at the University of Gastronomic Sciences. Prior to opening Gocciolina in June, Benjamin worked for more than a decade in Durham restaurants, notably Pop’s (which inspired his Italian sojourn) and Rue Cler.
That Benjamin chose to study in Italy rather than, say, Johnson & Wales or the Culinary Institute of America, reflects a willingness to venture off the beaten path – which he also did with his choice to open his first restaurant in a nondescript little strip mall in northern Durham. The location clearly hasn’t kept foodies in one of America’s foodiest towns from discovering Gocciolina’s charms. The sturdy wood tables and chairs tend to fill up by 7 p.m. in the trattoria-casual dining room and at the well-stocked bar at the back, where customers are treated to a front-row view of the chef as he expedites orders at the pass-through window into the kitchen.
Time and again, Benjamin’s independent spirit, filtered through an authentic Italian lens, yields delightful surprises. The excellent complimentary bread sticks, for starters. The house-made testa in casseta, whose menu description (“hog’s head terrine”) leads you to expect a hearty slab in the style of a paté. What you get instead are sublime, petal-thin ribbons of charcuterie that leave the restaurant critic no alternative but to break an unwritten rule and use the term “melts in your mouth.” Because in this case, it actually does.
Another starter, featuring meaty slabs of eggplant fried crisp and topped with roasted beets and dabs of Gorgonzola, is so thoroughly rewarding it’s hard to imagine the dish as a consolation prize for the version that paired the eggplant with local tomatoes in the summer.
Pork meatballs, smallish but loaded with flavor, are far superior to the beef-pork-veal behemoths touted as being made from an “old family recipe” at so many Italian-American eateries (and that invariably prove to be bland and dry).
In the same vein, Benjamin’s authentic spaghetti carbonara — made with a brand of pasta he has favored since his days in Italy, tossed with egg yolk, pecorino and crispy bits of house-cured pork belly, and finished with a few grinds of black pepper — will spoil you for the creamy-saturated pseudo-carbonaras served in many Italian restaurants. Granted, you won’t get the massive pile of spaghetti that’s the norm in those places. You’ll get a reasonable portion for an eminently reasonable $9.
The same applies to house-made pastas, with options ranging from baked gnocchi with veal bolognese to roasted Hubbard squash agnolotti with sage butter and Parmigiano in the $8-10 range.
More substantial entree options include pan-roasted Colorado lamb chops and a thick spice-rubbed pork chop, both accurately cooked to order and, judging by their juiciness, properly rested. If the grilled Sunburst Farm trout isn’t available, your well-trained waiter will inform you up front, before you get your hopes up – and will likely take the opportunity to explain that the restaurant has no freezer. Then he’ll direct your attention to the chalkboard, where you might find, say, grilled black drum with chanterelles and wilted romaine. He’ll point out that the fish was delivered from the North Carolina coast just a few hours ago.
Entrees are as reasonably priced as the pastas, with most in the $15-$20 range. And the $9 price for “grass-fed beef steak” is not a typo. It’s for a 5-ounce cut (think petit filet, though the cut here is likely to be flank steak or tri-tip) of Firsthand Foods beef, sliced and served with grilled onion and olive oil. Order an à la carte side to go with it — the whole roasted broccoli is excellent and ample for two — and you’ve got a meal for under $15 that’s as satisfying as it is healthy.
Naturally, you’ll want to reward yourself with dessert. You won’t go wrong with textbook panna cotta, quivering under a drizzle of a rich, complex Barolo reduction. Or with cannoli – even the shells are made in house, then piped with a barely sweet ricotta filling subtly flavored with orange zest and a whisper of cinnamon.
Or maybe a cup of Italian hot chocolate would hit the spot on a chilly night. Served with marshmallow cookies, it’s so rich you may find yourself running your finger along the inside of the cup when nobody’s looking, to get every last droplet.
Come to think of it, Gocciolina is a pretty good name after all.
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