At Strega Restaurant in Milford, the goal is an experience of ‘traveling in Italy’

MILFORD — The best compliment a customer can give new Strega restaurant owner Danilo Mongillo after tasting the food is to tell him, “I’m back in Italy,” as they recall the tastes and vibes of trips there.

“It happens frequently,” Mongillo said. “We want to give the experience you get when you’re traveling in Italy. It’s something Connecticut deserved.”

For Mongillo, the goal is to serve the tastiest authentic Italian cuisine — which can be different than Italian-American cuisine many are accustomed to in America, he said.

Instead, he uses fresh specialty ingredients, many of which are flown in weekly from Italy, such as black Italian truffle and buffalo mozzarella, made from the milk of a rare buffalo that has survived in one region.

Mongillo, who grew up in a big family in the small village of Puglianello where the cooking flowed and he had the benefit of parents from different regions — therefore more tastes — first opened Strega Restaurant in Branford in 2016.

Danilo Mongillo, left, co-owner and executive chef at Strega, and co-owner Vinnie Behal are photographed in the dining room of the new restaurant on River Street in Milford on June 18, 2021.

Arnold Gold / Hearst Connecticut Media

Business had been fabulous and he was planning to open a second restaurant in Milford, but then the pandemic hit. He tried to make it on takeout orders in Branford, but it wasn’t enough to support his family of a wife and two children.

In addition, the pandemic affected the very cornerstone of his dishes — food items imported fresh from Italy.

He went through with the opening in Milford June 3 at 9 River St., hiring General Manager Vinnie Behal to help “improve all the operations of Strega Milford.”

Already he’s seen many customers from Branford as well as packing in new ones.

“The food is authentic and outstanding. It is not the typical Italian menu that you see all over Connecticut, you will find something new and delicious for sure,” said Erica Cricchi, a customer of Branford — and now, Milford. “The ingredients are fresh and quite often you will be served something imported from Italy that you cannot find elsewhere.”

She said Mongillo is “hands-on with his clientele to be sure that they enjoyed their meal,” and the atmosphere is warm, like being with family.

“I’ve been a customer for years and never once had an experience that was anything less than fantastic,” she said.

The new Italian restaurant Strega, on River Street in Milford photographed on June 18, 2021.

Arnold Gold / Hearst Connecticut Media

Mongillo said the customers are supportive, understanding and that really helps him.

“I’m a little rusty, I’m a little nervous and tired,” he said. “They say ‘congratulations’ — I need that.”

In 2019, while Strega in Branford was open, Gambero Rosso, the world’s foremost authority on Italian food, wine and travel, recognized it for excellence in authentic Italian cuisine — the first time it’s bestowed such an award on an Italian restaurant in Connecticut.

Mongillo got hooked on Milford during a vacation in 2012 to visit his wife, Rosanna Merenda, who was studying graphic design at Southern Connecticut State University. She now is the restaurant’s marketing manager.

He went to the popular Stonebridge Restaurant on Daniel Street and the place was bustling, happening and packed. He fell in love with Milford, thinking the name of the city was “Stonebridge” and kept saying things like, “I want to go to Stonebridge to shop,” until someone finally straightened him out.

“Milford has a good energy,” Mongillo said.

He had a government job in Italy as a police officer for the Ministry of Agriculture when he moved here in 2014 to join his wife who wanted to stay in America. His job with the ministry was investigating violations against Italy’s strict regional product controls on food, wine and cheese.

The atmosphere in Milford is different than it was in Branford, as the Milford location has a modern flair, is done in forest green, with green velvet chairs, walnut-colored tables and a black granite bartop.

The dough of their Neapolitan-style pizza is light, 75 percent water and is made in a several-hour process, Mongillo said. There is special fresh mozzarella on the pizza, which is cooked at 800 degrees and ready in 90 seconds, he said.

Some favorite dishes include beef tartare with artichokes; deep-fried whole eggplant, cut, stuffed with fresh mozzarella, basil and Parmesan cheese.

They serve beef, cured meats, porchetta, tuna, calamari and more, with a careful eye for presentation that prompts some customers to take photos of the food.

“Strega” means witch in English, but Mongillo said the name in his restaurant’s case isn’t about mean, cackling entities, but rather the women in old Italy — the moms, grandmas, aunts and sisters who, in agricultural towns, take care of preserving seasoning and cooking the meat hunted by the men.

“The witch is nothing bad at all,” he said.

That image reminds him of home in Italy when his grandmother and “all the ladies” in his small town knew the secret of preserving with herbs and seasoning, he said.

His parents own a farm and butcher shop in Puglianello, located in the Province of Benevento. But his parents originally were from different regions of Italy, so Mongillo grew up watching different kinds of cooking.

He imports and distributes many goods from Italy, including wine made on his parents’ farm.

“I’m not just a restaurateur. I’m a messenger of the ‘Made in Italy’” movement, Mongillo said. “I’m very connected to Italy. I’m very connected to my culture.”

What does he like best about the restaurant business?

“Definitely the reaction of the customers because that makes me proud,” Mongillo said. “We are so happy” to be reopened.