Mare Blu’s welcoming interior & consistent Italian menu are improvement over predecessor

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Like marriage, restaurants begin with the best intentions. And, like a union doomed from the beginning, they’ll close - sometimes months later - with the owners saying, "Why didn’t we see the problems from the start?"

Giuseppe Salvitti, the owner of Aqua, an ambitious seafood restaurant that opened in April, and shut its doors six months later, probably asked himself that question.

Aqua was upscale for Smith Street where most bistros aim for a laid-back ambience. In the dining room, homey accents fought modern furnishings in a no-win battle. The menu offered globally diverse dishes that seemed less like a chef’s interest in experimentation than an unsuccessful attempt to offer something for everyone.

Mare Blu is the eatery that Salvitti, who also operates Savoia on Smith Street, opened in Aqua’s place. It’s everything the original restaurant was not. Gone are the chilly white and seafoam walls. Now the room is warmed with sunny golds and sage green. Awful prints are replaced with Italian movie posters and photographs of fishing villages. The wooden curves that line the ceiling, a reference to ship hulls and an original Aqua touch, remain. In this setting, they’re like arms caressing the room.

But most importantly, the menu by new chef Jose Lema plants itself in Italy and doesn’t budge.

As soon as you’re seated, the waitress drops a basket filled with the kind of tender-centered, brittle-crusted bread you wish every restaurant served. With it comes a bottle of extra-virgin olive oil and saucer so you can do a pour and dunk till you drop. A tiny dish of little mouth-puckering olives and tangy radishes accompany the bread.

My guest and I were still chilled from our dash from the car to the restaurant - a good 10 feet. The bowl of wild mushroom soup with its potent aroma of the forest warmed us.

Lema makes a fine version of linguine with clams, an entree that we shared as an appetizer. The sauce is light, briny and scattered with whole roasted garlic cloves. The large bowl is ringed with tender, sweet baby clams in their shells and brightened with the deep green leaves of arugula.

I loved my bronzino (which I think they should return to the menu) just as much. The delicate sea bass is grilled until the skin is crisp and the flesh sweet and tender. Beside the fish is a mound of potatoes that resemble molded home fries. They’re fabulous; garlicky, soft potato slices alternate with crisp-edged, browned pieces flecked with parsley. That unassuming pile of potatoes could steal the scene if the fish wasn’t such a strong partner. A dollop of fresh-tasting parsley sauce added a note of color to the dish.

The one blooper was a special that evening of lightly battered pork loin slices that were fried crisp and greaseless - but without taste. The meat arrived with overcooked, oily broccoli rabe studded with sausage pieces. None of it worked.

Desserts are the least interesting items on the menu. There are a variety of gelatos and sorbets, a tiramisu, a classic creme brulee and zabaglione with mixed berries. The creme brulee was silky with a perfectly browned-sugar crust; the zabaglione, a frothy custard, needed another splash of Marsala wine to give it the kick it needs.

While Aqua wasn’t at home in the neighborhood, Mare Blu is. And you can feel just how right it is as soon as you sit down. The room bustles quietly; diners linger over the meals; and the waitresses are happy, not harried. And that linguine with clam sauce is worth a trip - even with a frigid wind whipping down Smith Street.


Mare Blu (174 Smith St. between Warren and Wyckoff streets in Boerum Hill) accepts American Express, Diner’s Club, Discover, MasterCard and Visa. Entrees: $9.50-$23.50. The restaurant serves dinner daily. Brunch is available Saturdays and Sundays, from 11 am to 3 pm. For more information, call (718) 643-1589.

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