Our latest installment of Quick Bites brings us to Carroll Gardens for fried custard at an authentic Italian neighborhood bistro.
Opened during high summer on a sleepy stretch of southern Court Street, Cremini's is a charming Italian cafe that feels a bit plopped down from some village near the Adriatic Sea. Not that it's rustic in here—there's a silly green neon sign with a play on Beastie Boys lyrics, and, come to think of it, the bathroom wallpaper is that Mike D toile, so I guess they're fans—but it seems designed for people on vacation, who have the time and inclination to stop in mid-afternoon for a basket of fried custard.
The layout also suggests a casual pop-in spot rather than a place for a traditional, sit-down dinner. A heavy communal table dominates the room, and side-by-side seating takes place on a wooden, throw-pillowed bench running up the southern wall. A coffee bar type of situation takes up the back of the space, with a half dozen stools. An odd assortment of home furnishings (a bright yellow hutch, a vintage typewriter, an ornate wooden mirror like you might see in a foyer) round out the decor.
Cremini's is owned by chef Elena Salanti and Riccado Massetti—both effortlessly friendly hosts, eager to make you feel welcome and happy. The two hail from the Le Marche region of Italy and say they are thrilled to set up a new home in Carroll Gardens. Though both have hospitality experience working for a large catering company in their homeland, this is the couple's first restaurant. The logistics are a bit awkward—it's table service when you place your order, but you pay up at the counter, and it's cash or Venmo only.
Salanti's menu centers on snacks and nibbles, but strategic ordering can yield a full, semi-balanced meal, and everything is both interesting and good. Start with one of Cremini's six varieties of deep-fried Ascolana Olives, which are potent, green, lightly battered, and stuffed with things like gorgonzola, minced meat with truffle paste, lentils and potatoes, or codfish and anchovy. These come in a cute little fry basket, as do the restaurant's namesake dish, the sweet and delicious Cremini, which are small squares of fried custard available in multiple flavors.
Of the two more entree-sized dishes, Elena's Burger is the better bet. It wasn't medium rare as requested, but it was a total flavor bomb, thanks to the minced olives, slab of bacon, sweet caramelized onion jam, massive amounts of melted provolone, and a salty, chewy pretzel bun that managed to hold it all together. The accompanying "round fries" are really potato chips and, though pleasantly salty, could have used a little more time in the fryer. The Polpette Le Marche, a fried pair of jumbo-sized balls made from fettuccini, meat, bechamel, and tomato sauce, were just as heavy as the burger, though far less engaging.
There are housemade pastries, a trio of salads, and plates of meat and cheese, all imported from Italy, but the best thing here is probably the Crescia, a "special sandwich" which eats like a quesadilla and serves an alternative vehicle for those same meats and cheeses. Massetti recommended I fill mine with Spicy Soppressata and Stracchino, and he wasn't wrong, but I imagine just about any combo would work well with this delight.
Cremini's has lots of good things to eat that you don't see on many other menus, but I worry about its utility in this residential, family-oriented neighborhood. Only one other party was ever there on both of my dinner-time visits, on a Friday and Saturday evening, and it's too expensive (for me) for regular pop-ins: a burger, those custard bites, and an Italian soda cost $50 with tip. Salanti and Massetti are worth rooting for though, so I hope they figure it out.
Cremini's is located at 521 Court Street, between West 9th and Garnet Streets, and is open weekdays from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., and weekends from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. (929-305-2967; creminis.com) (Note: They are currently closed until Friday, October 11th.)