Along Route 2, which nowadays is an asphalt doormat for one of the world’s largest casinos, North Stonington boasts such small-town charms as a pornography shop, a smoke shop, a pawn shop, and a tattoo parlor. With some anxiety, even the primmest and properest of townspeople have learned to live with these neighbors and found that the world has kept on spinning. But now certain residents, certain self-proclaimed guardians of rural American values, have decided to draw the line at—brace yourself—an Italian restaurant! Buon Appetito opened at the site of the former Dew Drop Inn this winter, after investing more than a million dollars in breathtaking renovations. It has gotten nothing but grief from the town in return.
The author of this column will do his best to stay out of the legal and political battle swirling around the restaurant and instead focus on the food. Thankfully, the menu at Buon Appetito offers plenty of worthy distractions. I’ve visited four times so far and gone home pleased every time.
Roasted prawns ($22) for my first meal left no doubt that I would return. Plump shrimp, about the size of a man’s finger, and two or three types of wild mushrooms in a savory puttanesca sauce arrived on a bed of earthy, rich Parmesan polenta and wilted greens. The polenta melted in my mouth, while the smoky flavor and snap of the shrimp put an end to any thought that I might have leftovers to take home.
The kitchen scored another victory in texture and flavor on my next visit, when I enjoyed the fried pork chops ($18). A crispy brown breading, reminiscent of my grandmother’s homemade fried chicken, enveloped two tender pork chops. These came served atop a pile of tiny, elbow-shaped cheddar macaroni and cheese with confit tomato. Confit tomatoes—a dish worth trying at home—are cooked submerged in olive oil, slowly and patiently. Kissed with honey or something similarly sweet, Buon Appetito’s tomatoes (the Roma variety) make the plate come alive. I wish they’d add another slice or two.
My parents and I dined together for this meal. We sat in the airy and sunlit dining room, admiring the high ceilings and large windows looking out at Route 2 and the town-owned Hewitt property. Buon Appetito is leasing the building from the town, and the terms of that lease are at the core of the legal dispute. Inside the restaurant, which the owner has rebuilt completely, everything smells fresh and new, like the inside of a Home Depot. The most appetizing aromas emanate, however, from the kitchen’s wood-fired brick oven.
My mother raved about her arugula salad ($8.75) with artichoke hearts, shaved fennel, red onion, shaved Parmesan, and lemon vinaigrette. The slab of salmon ($4 more) on her plate looked succulent and inviting, but I did not have the heart to ask her to share. I had no qualms about asking my father for some of his calzone, however. Stuffed fat with garlic-roasted chicken, broccoli, basil ricotta, and mozzarella—rather too much mozzarella—the calzone ($11.25) was roughly the size of a flattened football or, perhaps, a saddle. A grown man could live off it for days. The kitchen perfectly browned the calzone’s crust.
The brick oven did impressive work too on my polpette pizza ($14.25) on a later visit. The crust emerged from the wood fire picture-perfect and smoky, equal parts crispy and chewy. Thick coins of homemade polpette, or meatballs, crowded every slice but tasted pleasantly mild, not too garlicky, and allowed the slightly sweet crushed tomatoes to steal the show. Smears of basil ricotta held the other ingredients together.
The best of all my meals at Buon Appetito so far, though, has been the “dirty chips” appetizer and orecchiette entrée. Both choices will be hard to resist on my next visit.
True, paying $9.25 for potato chips seems a stretch, but the dirty chips would make an outstanding and incredibly fun dish for sharing. A pile of kettle chips was drizzled here with a sharp gorgonzola cream and touched there with a squirt of tahini. Clumps of finely chopped green olive tapenade contributed an irresistible savoriness, while mint gremolata—or tiny shreds of mint leaves, in my case—struck a contrast by delivering bursts of palate-cleansing refreshment.
The orecchiette ($17) was a bowl of Italian greatest hits. Tiny flying saucers of al dente pasta, the restaurant’s own, cupped bits of tomato and white beans. These ingredients mingled with broccoli rabe and chunks of sausage. Dark and rich, fragrant and gamey, and full of warm, sweet spice, the sausage came from Westerly Packing Co., the waitress said. No wonder it was so good. The orecchiette was moist but not drenched in oil, and I didn’t really notice garlic, a good sign that the kitchen doesn’t try to kill you with it.
It would be a shame if North Stonington loses a restaurant like Buon Appetito. Hopefully, the restaurant and the town will settle their differences soon. In the meantime, while the lawyers get rich, Buon Appetito deserves credit for turning one of Route 2’s ugliest buildings into one of its most beautiful and for cooking the most delicious meals in town.
386 Norwich-Westerly Road
(860) 535-0522 or 535-2333