There's a chain restaurant with a particularly irksome saying- "when you're here, you're family." Call me old-fashioned, but my idea of family never included passive waitstaff and large, generic dishes. In thinking of the ideal family meal (always better in theory than in practice), I consider attention to detail, shamelessly experimental dishes, like the time my father tried making beer-infused waffles for us, and above all, the suspension of time, where an hour turns into three and minutes pass quickly yet seem like forever. A good restaurant can mimic that with the enjoyment of a night out. And that, my friends, is Bufalina.
Bufalina opened in Guilford off of Route 1 in September in a space formerly occupied by an Israeli deli no larger than the common room in my dormitory. With eight seats, a hand-crafted wood-fire oven cooking up anything from crepes to cookies, and a large, round-table style of bumping elbows with your dining mates, it wins both the awards for the most claustrophobia-inducing and the most exclusive place in town. Reservations are easy to get and quick to disappear as the evening fills. Owners Matt Scialaba and Melissa Pelligrino dance around the kitchen as though performing a constantly fluctuating, interpretive tango with the preparation and the orders and the chit-chat coming in lightning fast.
Opening my ears, it was not unusual to hear hearty greetings from repeat customers, who soak up Matt and Melissa's almost eidetic memories with gusto. "How's your baby?" she'll ask one couple, cooing over their photos on their iPhone. To another, Matt will discuss wine, eventually accepting a glass from a diner before they depart. Chatter of Italy, Jack Kerouac's Dharma Bums, shelter dogs, and such reverberate through the tiny room. It was like watching an elaborate ballet, seeing them cook, interact with customers, and serve food simultaneously.
Bufalina does not have a liquor license or a wine list, but they encourage customers to BYOB and open bottles happily either at the counter while you're waiting for a table or at the table itself. A makeshift bar indeed, where dolcetto is happiest served in scotch tumblers as it is Schott Zweisel. We ordered both a Porri pizza, with caramelized leeks, aged mozzarella, and pancetta, and an order of their lasagna, hand-made daily using not noodles, but fresh crepes. The menu is minute, but carefully crafted. They're still working out a rotating seasonal menu but have established some pretty well-loved standards. This was a favorite of both take-out customers and those dining in.
The pizza was otherworldly, the direct antithesis to the horrors we experienced at The Hungry Ghost, with a distinct woodsy flavor permeating the fluffy, bubbled crust. The crust has a classic style reminiscent of its New Haven apizza brothers, but a little denser and chewier, lacking that quintessential element of brittleness but bringing a little more body, with a slight tang from fermentation and a beautiful craggy undercarriage.
The toppings were not terribly plentiful, but were enough to get a bit of everything in each bite under the blanket of perfectly melted, soft mozzarella. The leeks were naturally sweet and yielded to each bite, and the lack of sauce was barely detectable as they were moist enough on their own. With the thick slices of pancetta, it was both smoky and sweet and thoroughly addictive. I was extremely tempted to order another as the first came out in record time, around eight minutes after we ordered.
Our lasagna also slid to the back of the oven after a quick assembly of crepes and a creme brulee-esque dusting of parmesan on top that crackled and crisped similar to its sweet counterpart. Served in a deep-dish foil tin oozing with cheese and charred bits of crepe edges poking out of the sides, it was molten hot and ethereally light, the crepes soaking up the sauce and melted mozzarella cheese while leaving a delicate lace of crispy parmesan on the bottom. It was a predominantly nutty and sweet lasagna that benefited from a little hot crushed red pepper on top and still remained luxurious and rich despite its airy texture. Pockets of cheese continued to delight as ricotta and mozzarella seeped out of each bite.
After overhearing that Melissa served not only as the waitstaff and manager but as the resident pastry chef as well, we couldn't resist splitting a piece of the night's special dessert, a chocolate ricotta crumb cake whose supply was quickly dwindling. In fact, shortly after we ordered our piece, a man who had come in with his wife at six for dinner popped back in at nine to grab the last few slices for dessert. The cake was the perfect end to the meal, bridging the gap between savory and sweet with a mild flavor from the powdered sugar topping and a cloud-like, fluffy charcoal center, crisp from the bottom of the oven and slightly smoky. With the final sips of our dolcetto, it was a wonderful way to depart.
And yet, we lingered over our check, listening to the quiet clamor of cleanup and the last of the conversations trailing off. Our bill was incredibly reasonable, $27 and change for two, and was worth twice the cost for the bonhomie and delicately prepared food. As we left, one customer was talking on the phone to a friend who was a tomato farmer, "Listen, you've got to check this place out..." as Matt showed another his most recent magazine article. Three waved as we left, wishing us a safe drive on the cold and rainy evening. We didn't know their names yet left feeling as though we'd departed from a comforting and intimate dinner party. Looking through the window you'd have no idea it wasn't a simple gathering with friends.
The euphoria lasted well into the evening, the good vibes and care from the customers and staff lingering on our tongues and in our minds. If restaurants like Bufalina continue to thrive, we can say goodbye to the cookie cutter idea of the sterile "family restaurant" and move onto a brighter horizon where we're all just a little more human.
McDonald’s McRib Commercial from the 80′s
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