If you were looking for a classic Italian seafood spot in Brooklyn, you’d probably think Carroll Gardens or Williamsburg, maybe Bay Ridge. You almost certainly wouldn’t look at Stuyvesant Heights, but that’s where you’ll find one of the year’s most surprising, and under-covered, restaurant openings.
Celestino opened quietly in January, the latest venture from Saraghina owner Massimiliano Nanni, and the unmarked entrance is easily overlooked even by Bed-Stuy residents. Inside, the rustic, nautical-themed dining room–lobster traps and fishnets hang from the ceiling–could be confused for other pescetarian-friendly Brooklyn newcomers like Littleneck, which makes it all the more surprising that the food isn’t the slightest bit hipstery. Instead, the short menu features simple, refined seafood. No sriracha, no crispy Brussels sprouts, nothing the least bit new-school or fusion-y.
I particularly enjoyed the codfish mantecato–salted cod pureed with creamy potatoes and served over a bed of broccoli puree, both elements spread by the forkful on crispy crostini. For people who find the intense fishy flavor of codfish just a little much to handle, mantecato transforms it into something more like a polenta or grits dish, a wonderfully creamy texture that retains a bit, but not all, of that distinct fishiness. Speaking of polenta, it’s served here with green peas and slices of the squid-like cuttlefish, another delightful dish that makes a potentially scary sea creature palatable. There are also sardines served over salad, a daily selection of fresh oysters, and always at least one whole fish option. Desserts are upscale and, unlike seemingly every other new place in Brooklyn, don’t do anything crazy with salted caramel or bacon. Think lemon sorbet and pomegranate panna cotta: small, simple and tasty.
It’s a little odd that it should be so surprising to find a refined, gimmick-free restaurant in brownstone Brooklyn these days, but also refreshing. The reason why I love Celestino is that despite the polished cuisine, the vibe is distinctly laid-back and Brooklyn-y. None of the dishes top $17, the staff is friendly in a neighborly way, and on a recent Saturday night my date and I lingered for three hours and never felt pressured to move on. Of course, this was partially because the restaurant hasn’t attracted a huge following yet, but here’s hoping that will change.