Ah, Ciopinno. Just saying the name of the seafood stew conjures breezy seaside cafés.
Ciopinno originated in the 1800s when Italian fishermen settled in San Francisco. It includes a mix of whatever fish and shellfish (often served in the shell) is pulled fresh from the water on the day it’s made. The stew’s stock is flavored with wine and tomatoes, and it’s often served with pasta. The stew is always accompanied with grilled or toasted crusty bread, because not having something to soak up that stock would be tragic. There are differences of opinion concerning the origin of the name, but it’s said to derive from the words “chip in,” as in: You add the mussels, I’ll throw in some halibut and we’ll eat.
I enjoyed a perfect ciopinno in a place that fits its location like bait in the mouth of a trout: Kevin’s in Red Hook. Wedged between Buttermilk Channel, Gowanus Bay and the Gowanus Canal, you can smell the water as you stroll down Van Brunt Street, the area’s evolving main drag. Obviously, a restaurant specializing in seafood is a natural fit.
If you see the sun glinting off a large aluminum fish hanging from a café’s awning on Van Brunt Street, you’ve found Kevin’s. Inside, the decor is casual in a beach-inspired yet sophisticated way (there are no nets on the walls or stuffed fish mounted anywhere). The 28-seat dining room and a small bar (with a view into the kitchen) exude an adult ambience. On a Saturday evening, jazz played quietly in the background while couples and groups of locals lingered over their meals. Owner Kevin Moore’s well-edited, locally sourced and market-driven menu is priced with the recession in mind. A pound and a half lobster from the Red Hook Lobster Pound is approximately $23 dollars. Other dishes top out around $22 with many in the mid-teens. A BYOB policy (there’s a $5 corkage fee) makes it the kind of place diners can afford to frequent several times a week.
Moore, who owns the catering company Moore Parties, co-owns the café with Caroline Parker. Parker serves as a serene front of the house presence and baker of homey desserts. Moore, who was the executive chef at Wings Point in East Hampton, has a great respect for fish. His cioppino offered large chunks of moist flounder, plump shrimp, tender rings of squid and silken scallops. It’s the broth though, clean and bracingly briny with a hint of sweetness from the tomatoes and just enough garlic to complement the star players, that made the dish. Order the dish at brunch and it’s called Hearty Seafood Stew and priced at $12. At dinner it’s cioppino for $19. The evening’s serving includes a few more pieces of seafood. No matter when you eat it, it’s still a bargain.
Moore employs a rich lobster stock for his signature Corn Shrimp Chowder ($3 for a cup at brunch, $6 for a bowl at dinner). The shellfish base struck deep notes against the sweetness of the shrimp and crisp corn kernels. Like the cioppino, it’s a delightful summertime indulgence.
While the menu skews toward fish, there is meat as well as vegetarian options. A perfectly cooked, juicy Filet Mignon Au Poivre made someone at my table happy, but a curry with grilled pieces of chicken, apricots and figs was too subtle for its own good.
Parker’s desserts, made with organic ingredients, possess a straight-from-mom’skitchen simplicity, and she prefers traditional sweets like apple pie, cheesecake and nut tarts.They’re not exciting, but with a cup of rich coffee, they make an enjoyable finish to a summer’s evening meal.
277A Van Brunt St. (betw. Visitation & Pioneer Streets), Brooklyn, 718-596-8335
Red Hook’s seamen gather at Kevin’s.