Behind the Scenes at Convivium Osteria

This Italian restaurant does Mediterranean food (and life) right.

Brooklyn eateries that subscribe to a slow-food philosophy on the plate are now too many to count, but Convivium Osteria, Carlo and Michelle Pulixi’s neighborhood gem on the northernmost block of Fifth Avenue, might be the only space that feels like it’s set in a shed in preindustrial Italy.

The rustic osteria is the antithesis of the sleek, bare, modern restaurants where the plates are pastoral but the decor is downtown. Here the dining room is crammed with heavy, homemade furniture, rusting farm tools and bucolic bric-a-brac, not hung as if in a gallery but crowded about as if in an authentic agriturismo outbuilding. Couples and families fill the candlelit nooks, upstairs and down, sharing Mediterranean fare like roasted whole prawns sprinkled with flor de sal, or braised rabbit seasoned with salty flecks of prosciutto, capers and olives, on gorgeous cakes of fried polenta.

The menu—primarily Italian but peppered with Portuguese and Spanish touches—reveals Michelle and Carlo’s backgrounds: Her mother is Brazilian and her family spoke English and Portuguese at home, while he grew up in Sardinia in a family of shepherds and cheesemakers—even as a child he was comfortable pressing ricotta and curing hams. Such ingredients are now standbys for Park Slopers, but 10 years ago, the couple’s idea of a farmhouse Italian restaurant on a desolate stretch of Fifth Avenue a few feet from Flatbush seemed, to all their friends, “completely crazy.”

The two met in the ’90s while working the front of the house at Il Buco in the East Village. (Carlo both hired and fired Michelle, but today the couple are mum on the details.) Carlo had “never set foot in Brooklyn, not even once,” but Michelle lived in Park Slope and persuaded him to visit. Carlo fell for both the lady and the landscape and in 2000, the couple decided to take the ultimate leap: not to marry, but to open a restaurant together: “I could not believe there was no one serving Carciofi alla Romana,” says Carlo, “so we decided to do it.”

And they did it well: Within a year, New York Magazine named their take on that dish the “Best Artichoke in New York.” Today Carlo’s version of the Italian-style braised bud comes carefully trimmed, its curves intact. The beauty is halved, served knee-deep in garlic-and mint-infused olive oil, reclining on a starry arrangement of her own leaves, shapely stem pointing up to the pressed-tin ceiling. Like so much of the menu, the classic dish is deceptively simple, executed with a little nudge.

It’s a far cry from what was on offer in the little space before they transformed it. An eager landlord offered them a few months’ free rent on an abandoned shoe store that had doubled as an illegal gambling operation. “It was full of trash, completely filthy,” Carlo laughs now, “but it had this beautiful original storefront.” What they lacked in equity they made up for in elbow grease.

“When we want do something,” Michelle explains, “we figure out how to do it ourselves. We consult our friends, we find specialists in our circle, and then we go for it.” Restaurateurs commonly utter such sentiments about house-cured pork belly or DIY distilling, but the pair applied this attitude to loading dumpsters and wielding drills. After nine backbreaking months, they and their friends had cleaned up, built out and completely transformed the shoe store’s trash heaps into warm, romantic rooms, connected by a tiny but well-designed kitchen with an open passe. Later, they emptied the basement and hand built a bricked wine cellar, complete with iron gates.

The Pulixis doused the dining room in cognac-colored light, cluttering the walls with antique kitchen tools, olive presses, wooden cutting boards worn by work, and beaten copper bowls. They used reclaimed pine and walnut wood from a barn upstate to build their own dining tables, benches, a bar, parts of the kitchen and a beautiful wall mount now covered in culinary knick-knacks.

The opening months were bumpy. September 11 took a big bite out of the baby business, and they went through three chefs in a year. Frustrated that none of them had been able to execute his vision, Carlo decided to don the toque himself. Although the entirety of his restaurant experience was front of the house (a good chunk of it at Tribeca’s now-closed Arqua under Leonardo Pulito), he had faith in his heritage: “I’m Italian!”

It worked. When he was unsure of a specific recipe or technique, he called his aunt or sister back in Italy. “I made a few mistakes,” he shrugs, “but I learned quickly what only works in the home kitchen and what works in the restaurant.” He built on the menu of fresh pastas, grilled seafood, braised meats and simple, well-seasoned salads, sourcing rabbit and pork from the Ozark Mountains, beef (that beautifully grilled ribeye for two) from Painted Hill Farms and vegetables from the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket. Word spread, and soon it became impossible to imagine the block without the window into another world.

Each day Carlo creates two or three specials, depending on what speaks to him: “It could be something small, like the weather in the morning, that makes me want to cook something special.” Tonight, it’s duck legs with cherries and a small twisted fresh pasta with pork sausage.

Michelle also tackled the kitchen, combining know-how with can-do, taking charge of desserts. She even taught herself to make elaborate wedding cakes for private parties—starting with her own when she and Carlo wed in 2002. She built a three-tier confection layered with peaches and raspberries, on a crunchy honeycomb of almond caramel, and frosted it with a silky mix of meringue and whipped cream. The small ceremony took two weeks to plan; naturally, it was at the restaurant. Convivium’s cooks celebrated with them, drinking wine on the line while plating antipasti and family-style courses.

A few cooks and servers have been with the Pulixis for eight or nine years. “We’re so lucky,” says Michelle. Sergio Jardim, sommelier and manager, will be taking his Court of Master Sommeliers test soon, Carlo tells me, clearly delighted. And Yoni Rivera, chef de cuisine, “does such a wonderful job,” he beams, sounding less like a restaurant owner than a proud papa.

Convivium’s conviviality also shows when they talk about their regulars—many come in once or twice a week, sit at their usual tables and order their favorite wines from the 200-bottle strong, mostly Italian list. They’re here for that artichoke; the delicate pastas; the braised Berkshire baby-back pork ribs on soft, Pecorino-showered polenta; the quail, crisp-skinned and juicy on a bed of barely bitter, wine-red radicchio and sugary dry figs, drizzled with a bright port sauce.

Inspired by ingredients, they even do a tiny bit of their own growing. “Years ago we planted grapevines out there,” Carlo says, pointing to the pretty space out back. It’s closed for the winter but if you sit in the room that overlooks it, you can peek through the paned glass doors and catch the moon through the hanging wisteria. “We thought the vines all withered but we were wrong. Every year, that vine, it just keeps on growing.”

The Pulixis live upstairs with their two young children, Elisabetta, three, and Federico, seven, and on a typical morning they all come downstairs by 7:00 a.m. The first order of the day, while the kitchen is cool and quiet: pasta. Carlo gets to work with a prep cook, dropping bright-orange yolks into the organic Italian flour known as farina 00. He hand-cranks the smooth dough and cuts it into pappardelle, to be dressed with oxtail ragu, and fills the pudgy, dimpled ravioli by hand.

He pauses occasionally to accept a delivery or take a call, but by 9:30 a.m. the pastas are set aside for that night’s dinner and the farina is barely brushed off the counters when the rest of the kitchen crew checks in. Now it’s time to simmer the stocks, butcher the meat, clean the sea bass so it can be roasted whole, and prep the vegetables—which includes turning the artichokes (trimming the tough leaves and peeling the wiry stem, to get to their lilac-leafed hearts).

Michelle arranges private parties, steps in and out of meetings but gets in the kitchen, too, to work on her repertoire of desserts, which includes a tender pine nut and honey tart and a simple vanilla panna cotta with port sauce. Her version of frustingolo, the traditional Italian fig and chocolate cake, is a luxurious truffle-like confection. On any given night, there are five to six desserts including a special or two—tonight, Michelle is playing around with a pumpkin and apple tart, baking a few versions to get it just right.

The Pulixi kids are homeschooled and their teachers, including an Italian tutor and chess coach, meet them in the back room. Between lessons they visit their parents in the kitchen, sipping milk and chatting easily with them in Italian.

Sometime between 1:00 and 2:00 p.m. the family of four sits down together for lunch, usually just a simple pasta, or risotto with a salad. While they experimented with opening Convivium for lunch once, the dinner-only model suits this schedule best, giving them the most time together.

“Why spend our days apart,” Michelle asks, “when the whole family can be together, like in the old days?”

One-Pot Braised Pork Shoulder
By Michelle and Carlo Pulixi

1 6-lb. bone-in pork shoulder
10 cloves garlic, peeled
1 bottle white wine (we like to use Albariño)
2 cinnamon sticks
1 stem rosemary, leaves only, finely chopped
2 t salt
2 handfuls black olives, pitted
1 28-ounce can of crushed San Marzano tomatoes
10 potatoes, peeled and halved
10 small turnips, peeled and halved
4 oz. butter

Preparation:
1. Pierce 10 holes in the pork shoulder’s skin and push the whole cloves of garlic into the spaces. In a large ovenproof pot, combine the pork, wine, cinnamon, rosemary and salt. Leave overnight in the fridge.

2. The next morning, preheat the oven to 300°. Add the olives and tomatoes to the wine mixture and cook the pork skin side up, uncovered, for four hours, turning the meat every hour or so.

3. Now add the turnips and potatoes to the liquid, place the pats of butter on the skin of the meat, and cook for another 3 to 4 hours. For the last hour of cooking, check every 20 minutes or so.

4. When the meat pulls away easily from the bone, remove the shoulder from the oven. Drain the sauce into a saucepan to reduce it by about half. Serve the shoulder with the braised vegetables in a generous glug of sauce.

Tejal Rao is a freelance writer and French translator living in Brooklyn. She loves artichokes, and will eat as many as she can turn.

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Tejal Rao spent formative years in a hard-to-pronounce French village called Saint-Cyr-sur-Morin and moved to Atlanta as a teenager. She is still haunted by the face of the man at Customs who seized her homemade terrines in the summer of 1998.