Editor’s Note: Big Boom closed Friday, Sept. 11. To read a blog post about what co-owner Vincent Barresi said about the restaurant closing, go HERE.
On the sign over the entrance to Big Boom, a row of cartoon bombs is the only indication that the restaurant is located at this address. Not the restaurant’s name, just bombs – a provocative hint that what awaits inside is not your run-of-the-mill experience.
Sure enough, the dining room decor is an explosion of vivid colors and design cues evoking the restaurant’s name, from hand grenades strung along a curtain rod to ammo boxes on a shelf behind the bar. Splattered across the walls, graffiti that would make an inner city tag artist proud amplifies the theme. On one wall, “BOOOMM!” On another, “BANG!” And, wittily positioned over the kitchen pass-through window, a favorite word of chefs everywhere: “FIRE!”
In this case the chef is Vincent Barresi, a veteran restaurateur with a pedigree going back to the pizzeria his grandfather opened in New York’s Little Italy in 1929. After 25 years as the owner/chef of Vincent’s in North Raleigh, the third-generation Barresi was itching to venture outside the traditional repertoire of Italian-American cuisine.
He closed Vincent’s early this year and, with the help and encouragement of friend and fellow restaurateur Chris Bender, opened Big Boom in May on Glenwood South. A former owner of Five Star (among others), Bender can now sometimes be seen working alongside Barresi. It was Bender who nicknamed his friend “Big Boom” for his exuberant personality, in and out of the kitchen.
At his new restaurant, Barresi expresses that personality in the form of a seasonally changing menu, with occasional tweaks and a supplemental list of sides inspired by twice-weekly farmers market excursions. Depending on the harvest and the chef’s whim, that list can cover some pretty diverse territory, from classic prosciutto-wrapped asparagus to completely-off-the-Italian-map fried corn with jalapeños.
Still, the overwhelming majority of the offering is recognizably rooted in Italian tradition. The Caesar salad features grilled whole leaves of romaine, neatly assembled on a rectangular plate. But the dressing and shaved romano are classic. Calamari get a similarly elegant presentation with a drizzle of spicy tomato cream. But the squid is as tender and the crust as delicate as it ever was at Vincent’s.
It isn’t often that Barresi strays too far out of his comfort zone, but he does just that with a “spicy tomato marmalade” whose acerbic, pickled jalapeño-spiked flavor overwhelms the flavor of a bone-in pork chop.
More typical is the roasted grouper in a presentation with eggplant, olives, tomato, garlic, fresh mint and basil playing all the right notes. Or a colorful riff on a carbonara with sugar snaps, broccolini, peppers and mushrooms joining the customary pancetta in a cream sauce over fusilli. Or chianti-braised beef short rib served over cavatelli tossed with broccolini and baby bella mushrooms, a recent menu addition that delivers soul-satisfying comfort in spades.
For all his culinary gallivanting, the chef knows when to stick to the well-traveled path of tradition. Just as he did at Vincent’s, Barresi welcomes guests with excellent complimentary garlic knots.
He clearly knows better than to tamper with the Barresi family recipe for meatballs, too, a fine-textured, gently seasoned blend of beef, veal, pork and pecorino simmered in marinara.
Desserts – all homemade – cover a similar spectrum, from old-fashioned cannoli to new-fangled cannoli cream cake. Not to be missed is a New York-style cheesecake that owes its rich flavor and creamy texture, according to Barresi, to “about 20 percent mascarpone” mixed in with the customary ricotta and cream cheese.
Vincent’s fans will be happy to know that the the New York-style pizzas are good as ever. Barresi even brought two of his trusty pizza ovens with him to the new restaurant.
The ovens are not the only souvenirs of the chef’s heritage. Once your senses have adjusted to Big Boom’s full-on assault of a decor, you may notice a few of them: the etched-glass portrait of a 5-year-old Vincent Barresi with his mother, father and baby brother at JFK airport in 1971; the white marble shelf (known in restaurant parlance as “the rail,” where plates are placed when they’re ready to go out to the dining room) that reminds him of his first job in a restaurant, where he kneaded pizza dough on a white marble slab.
All of which goes to confirm what a meal at Big Boom demonstrates: You can take the boy out of the Italian restaurant, but you can’t take the Italian restaurant out of the boy.
510 Glenwood Ave., Raleigh; 919-307-4778
Atmosphere: brash, colorful, explosive theme echoing the restaurant’s name
Noise level: moderate to high
Service: generally friendly and attentive, still ironing out some wrinkles
Recommended: grilled Caesar, calamari, grouper, short rib, pizzas, cheesecake
Open: dinner nightly
Other: full bar; accommodates children; limited vegetarian selection; patio; parking deck in the same building.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: ☆☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary ☆☆☆☆ Excellent. ☆☆☆ Above average. ☆☆Average. ☆ Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.