Old Hollywood meets Naples
Bushnell’s Basin newcomer rises fast in a crowded Italian dining market
If Rochester’s got nothing else, it’s got great Italian restaurants. They occupy almost every niche in the culinary ecosystem with hordes of slice parlors, bistros, bakeries, wine bars, chef’s tables, brunch buffets, and white tablecloth affairs. Even places that don’t bill themselves as Italian would have to close up shop if they couldn’t turn out a decent osso bucco.
It’s a hard market to break into, but restauranteurs Joshua and Jenna Miles have shown they can hold their own—and rise to the top quickly. Their forays into Rochester so far have included the southern charm of the Revelry and the spry elegance of Char and Hattie’s at Strathallan Hotel, where Joshua serves as operator of food and beverage. Branca bears the hallmarks of these earlier ventures: a very specific theme, a commitment to authentic preparation, and an elevated level of service.
In spite of tough competition, Josh says he saw opportunity in Bushnell’s Basin, on the eastern edge of Pittsford, a hodgepodge of canal-era buildings and more modern business parks. He believes the location brings Italian cuisine to a neighborhood with few similar restaurants—and that his menu sets Branca apart from more Americanized offerings elsewhere.
Josh hired Pasquale Sorrentino, a Naples-born chef he met while working at a Wegmans supermarket restaurant. Sorrentino is certified by the American chapter of the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, which upholds the standards of what it considers a “true” Neapolitan pizza. The red wood-burning oven he uses was custom-built in Italy and shipped by boat across the Atlantic and is emblazoned in tile with the restaurant’s name.
It wouldn’t be strictly accurate to call Branca “Italian” or “Neapolitan.” Josh points out that it’s actually modeled on Italian restaurants from the golden age of Hollywood where actors and singers huddled over martinis in tufted-leather booths. In a variation upon this theme, rustic touches abound. Paneling from reclaimed wooden crates lines the walls, creating eye-catching, irregular surfaces and colors. An elaborate arrangement of wine glasses in the center of the dining room is illuminated by the light of a lovely onion-shaped light fixture.
The menu features traditional Italian dishes like gnocchi al ragu napoletano and pollo cotto al forna a legna, the names helpfully interpreted. If you’ve been to the Revelry or Char, you know that you have to start with a cocktail. The Rossini ($10), a thick, wonderfully tart concoction of vodka, prosecco, and fresh berry purée, matches well with the complementary sesame seed bread and chili dipping oil dappled with broken cloves of garlic. A strong theme winds its way through the cocktail menu—the use of amaro, a class of bitter liqueurs including Campari, Aperol, and Fernet Branca.
Chef Sorrentino and his staff cure all of the restaurant’s charcuterie, which is visible hanging in a window near the kitchen. The tagliatere di salumi fatti in casa ($16) is a large charcuterie plate with prosciutto, cappicola, and speck alongside pickled vegetables and a frothy burrata cheese that preps your palate in between contrasting flavors.
The same wild boar found in the osso bucco ($25) is the basis for tagliatelle al sugi di cinghiale ($20), a Bolognese sauce served over flat ragu noodles that are made each morning in the kitchen. The tagliatelle is served in a tall white bowl that keeps everything compact—and hot—rather than sprawled out across a conventional plate. The sauce has a more homogenous texture than you might expect in a bolognese. The root vegetables, herbs, and fat are rendered into a velvety consistency that amplifies, rather than distracts from, the flavor of the game meat. A nice tart white wine like the Di Lenardo pinot grigio ($8) sets the stage for the next bite.
Branca reaches out to many different kinds of clients. Sports fans and suburban commuters hang out in the bar area gabbing and watching LCD big screens. A plate glass wall that separates the bar and dining areas tamps down the murmur to a pleasant background buzz. Half-moon booths provide a secluded setting for date nights and small groups. More flexible single-table seating can be configured for larger parties.
It’s impressive to see how many patrons bring along their children, often ordering the quattro formaggio pizza ($15), large enough for two and beautifully blistered and simply made with four cheeses, olive oil, and basil. The cheese pizza is just the starter drug to lead adventurous children—and their adults—to try several more elaborate pies made with ingredients such as prosciutto, squash, and black truffle sauce. Just keep in mind that pizzas will only be made with tomato sauce if the menu specifies it.
Count Branca as another home run in the Mileses’ three years of opening restaurants in the Rochester restaurant scene. Since late 2014, it’s taken its place among the top tier of excellent Italian spots by providing a relaxing place for the food obsessive to indulge their exacting palates and the merely curious to see how well this popular cuisine can be done.
Josh’s next project is a southern barbecue restaurant in Canandaigua, and Jenna is joining other business partners to open a new brewery. If Josh can pull off Italian this good, just wait and see what this South Carolina native will do with a rack of ribs and a stack of hickory.
683 Pittsford-Victor Road
Mark Gillespie is the communications manager for the Rochester Institute of Technology College of Science. He is an avid fan of the region’s food, culture, and great outdoors.