Some people believe that life is a string of little coincidences, linking us all to one another, shaping our experiences and, by extension, guiding our steps. In the case of Hopeland Food & Liquor, a new restaurant recently opened at 320 Atlantic Avenue between Smith and Hoyt Streets, one little coincidence the partners shared upon meeting was the fact that they had lived a block away from each other for the past 10 years.
Then, after becoming friends, owner Pietro Costa and chef Roy Marino realized that they grew up in the same region of Italy, a few towns over from one another.
Costa was born and raised on his parents farm in Sant’Arsenio, a small 13th century town in the valley of the Cilento e Vallo di Diano National Park, until moving to the United States at the age of 12.
Marino was born in Salerno but spent much of his childhood in Cilento in Sicignano Degli Alburni, a small hilltop town.
"It was like Park Slope and Carroll Gardens, that close,” said Costa. "We realized that we had the same food experiences, the same background, the same thought processes as far as what we like in restaurants and what we want a restaurant to be."
So when the pair decided to join forces to open a business together, the inspiration was obvious: their hometown.
The Cilento region is contained by mountains and the sea, yielding a diverse range of foods. But Costa and Marino both agree that vinegared, or pickled, foods are a major part of the local diet.
"If you had a garden full of peppers, then you saved some of the peppers in vinegar and served them with pork in the winter," said Costa. That dish exists on the winter menu at Hopeland, as does a variation featuring Cornish game hen paired with vinegared acorn squash that had this reporter scraping her plate clean.
Other unique tweaks abound: For the ciambotta, caponata is served on a freselle as opposed to crostini. The Frittelle is a beautiful combination of deep-fried cauliflower, mushroom and artichoke. Meanwhile, proteins that are a mainstay in Southern Italy but uncommon in the U.S., such as rabbit, are sprinkled throughout the menu.
"I grew up on rabbit. We raised them, sold them, consumed them," said Costa. "Calf's liver is closer to Roy's heart than mine. And the baccala is such a difficult dish to get just right but when it's done correctly it's so delicious!"
The pair said they intentionally created a small menu so it could change seasonally. "We may get rid of pork and bring in lamb or goat for Easter," said Costa, excitedly. "We’ve had specials with steaks and fish, already. We’ll always have surprises when people show up. It’s literally planned by the day."
“The main ingredient of all of our dishes is time,” mused Marino. “Time makes all the difference. Some dishes require more of it, some require less. They are all very simple recipes but the time is equal to love."
And while some dishes, like the ricotta cake, have been copied exactly as Marino's sister Luisa makes it, other Cilento-inspired recipes are open to interpretation.
"We’re not offering a straight copy of a specific set of dishes, understanding that even within our region there is a different ragu tradition in every household," acknowledged Costa. "We have a dialogue and a conversation about how to make each dish work here in Brooklyn."
And were there any instances when the two co-owners found themselves arguing about the correct preparation of a dish?
"Every day,” said Marino, bursting into laughter.
"A few times every day," Costa concurred.
Aesthetically, the restaurant takes its cozy, tavern-like cues from Hudson Valley haunts such as The Beekman Arms in Hyde Park, Stissing House in Pine Plains and Madalin’s Table in Tivoli, and features many antiques salvaged or purchased from towns along the river. Cilento is married with this decor in subtle ways, such as 20th Century maps and lighting inspired by caciocavallo cheese.
There are more local touches, too, like the antique film projector displayed on top of the bar that Costa found on Congress Street packed inside of a discarded piece of luggage. It points at a flatscreen television that will play "soccer and soccer only," Patch was told.
"Ultimately, the reason we chose to research in the Hudson Valley, was because I have property in Staatsburg," said Costa. "It is almost a snapshot of my hometown. You can Google Earth it! The topography is practically identical.”
In fact, the name of the restaurant has a Hudson Valley origin. "Hopeland was a large dairy farm owned by the Huntington family," explained Costa. "If you look up Helen Huntington plus Astor, you will see a very interesting article from 1912 when the Titanic went down—the surviving Astor heir married Helen Huntington."
The Huntingtons were apparently obsessed with breeding the perfect Jersey cow and their story resonated with Costa and Marino's childhood experiences of raising their own animals.
In fact, Costa keeps a copy of the Huntingtons' meticulous husbandry file, the names of which will inspire infused limoncello or finocchietto drinks in the future.
“We're planning to have those ready by our Spring Garden Party,” said Marino, referring to the outdoor patio, which is due to be finished by the time warm weather arrives. "That way we can finally toast ourselves."