A table at Dino can mean a different experience every night.
For over a year, the sweet spot on DeKalb Avenue between Mario’s Pizza and the former Red Bamboo, now Cornerstone, sat empty, waiting for the right restaurant to come along and sweep it off its feet. And then, as if by magic, the layers started peeling away and onlookers got a glimpse of what lay inside. Enter Dino, a family-style Italian restaurant owned by Thiru Rajamani, a veteran manager of Frank in the city, and his wife Heather. The pair stripped the old Lou Lou’s spot, moving the bar out from its dark corner toward the window, adding exposed brick and painting the walls a lovely cream, which brightened the space and matched well with the dark wooden tables, wine rack and mirrors. Even the backyard was gutted and rehabbed with an intimate array of tables lit by low bulbs and candlelight.
Named after the couple’s 2-year-old son, Dino boasts a simple menu heavy on pasta and crostini and featuring a handful of salads and entrées. Unlike the small plates haughtily served at the neighborhood’s other new-ish Italian restaurant, Roman’s, the servings at Dino are hearty enough that one dish easily filled my belly without emptying my wallet. Also filling is the fresh rustic bread and dish of olive oil, laden with bits of real olive, that is placed on the table when you sit down. After three visits to Dino, this offering proved the most comforting and consistent thing about the restaurant. Beyond that, expect things to fluctuate.
The first night I visited, the chef was out sick and, unfortunately, the second in command didn’t have all the dishes down. For example, the dry black and green kale Caesar salad ($11) had a heavy fish taste in the dressing, but came without a hint of it in the anchovy croutons. The grilled polenta ($8) appetizer also disappointed, as the radicchio Treviso, gorgonzola dolce, vinegar and polenta, all great on their own, didn’t harmonize.
On another night, I was pleasantly surprised by the tender, grilled calamari ($9).
With a simple white wine wash and garlic, this commonly overly fried appetizer turned out light and refreshing. The bufala mozzarella ($11) also won me over with gooey circles of the fresh, imported cheese and perfectly ripe tomatoes dashed with bright green basil and balsamic vinegar. On the crostini side, the tart, chili-laced goat cheese ($4) struck all the right senses while the smoky, overly truffled eggplant caviar and bulky roasted red pepper weren’t anything special.
The pasta menu is hit or miss as well.
One night the bucatini ($12.50) wowed me with its bright-tasting tomato and onion gravy and the salty bits of pancetta tossed in with the al dente noodles, but on my next visit I was disappointed by the blandness of the pistachio-arugula pesto-coated orecchiette ($12). The spinach gnocchi ($14) had a delightful roasted garlic cream and tomato sauce, but the potato dumplings came out a tad too gummy. My whole table loved the sunshine-tinged lemon and parmigiano reggiano spaghetti ($12), but decided the boring asiago-stuffed ravioli of the day (various prices) wasn’t worth ordering again.
Like the food, the service at Dino varies.
Your best bet is to sit at the bar, where the friendly bartender managed to serve me while still conjuring up rounds of her specialty drinks. As she mixed and matched rum with bananas and coconut—cocktails change daily depending on her whims—she suggested wines, gave tastings and had some ideas about what went with the food. At the table, we tried a bottle of the NV Lambrusco “Grasparossa” ($32), a fun, sweet bubbly, which, unfortunately, didn’t go well with any of the entrées or pastas but went down easily just the same. For the prices and selection, Dino works as a neighborhood eatery, but until it grows up a little, it’s not much to write home about.
222 DeKalb Ave. (betw. Adelphi and Clermont Aves.), Fort Greene, Brooklyn, 718- 222-1999.