Islip’s Verace is one of Long Island’s most beloved Italian restaurants—and for good reason. Like all Bohlsen Restaurant Group properties, Verace is beautiful, designed thoughtfully with a cohesive vision, and the food—prepared “on stage” in the restaurant’s open kitchen—is excellent and authentic.
From the dining room, the entire operation looks and feels effortless, like an Italian fantasy of wine and cacio e pepe enjoyed among friends. Behind the scenes, however, the wheels of the Verace team are constantly turning. At staff meetings, the question is never “What can we do to stay on top?” but rather “What can we do to raise the bar even further?”
This hunger—to work constantly to improve an already-winning recipe—has been a part of the Verace story since before the restaurant’s opening in 2008. You can see evidence of it in the restaurant’s design, in the team BRG built to bring its vision to life, and in the eatery’s approach to sustainability.
Everything from Verace’s floors—made exclusively from sustainable wood—to its air conditioning system and decision to go straw-free was chosen with the environment in mind. And so, too, was the restaurant’s innovative wine-in-keg program, which eliminates waste by eschewing bottles, caps and corks, and diminishes the carbon footprint caused by having to ship the weight of all three, in favor of using stainless-steel-lined Eco Kegs instead.
“At first, everyone thought we were crazy,” says Paulo Villela, corporate beverage director at BRG. A trained agricultural engineer originally from Brazil, Villela appears, in person, as impressive as his resume appears on paper. Valedictorian for the Sommelier Society of America? Check. Former wine captain and sommelier at Windows on the World? Check. Former beverage director at Blue Fin Restaurant? Check. Throw in the fact that he’s fluent in five languages on top of all that and even the most self-assured person would be forgiven for feeling suddenly self-conscious.
But still, at first, not even Villela could get wineries on board with putting wine in kegs for Verace.
Working with European wineries would prove both more and less difficult. While the wineries there, largely in Italy, were on board with the idea, the logistics of shipping kegs to them from New York—and then waiting for them to ship those same kegs back—were challenging.
“So I found kegs in Germany, shipped them to Italy, and then had them ship the full kegs to Verace,” laughs Villela. “That was the beginning, when no one was putting wine in kegs. Now everyone is doing it.”
It’s easy to understand why. Not only is Verace’s keg program more sustainable than the current alternatives, but it reduces the wines’ exposure to oxygen, thus preserving their unique flavor profiles.
“We started with four taps; now we have ten,” says Villela, noting that Verace’s keg offerings include both local and European wines. “It preserves the character of the fruit and allows guests to really taste it as the winemakers intended.”
“This,” he laughs self-consciously, “is the perfect place to segue into what we’re doing with the Wine Lab.”
The brainchild of BRG’s own Sheila Haile, the Wine Lab at Verace is not your mama’s wine class. Held on the first Thursday of each month, each session of the Wine Lab includes a one-hour class, themed wine tastings, savory snacks and interactive take-aways. If it sounds like the perfect date or girls’ night activity, that’s because it is. Priced at just $40 per person, each session is capped at 30 participants and offers guests the same professional level of training that Villela gives to all BRG servers and staff.
“Wine is a fun thing; it shouldn’t be about an intimidating guy in a creepy suit,” says Villela. “We see it all the time. People will sit down at restaurants and say, ‘Just give me a glass of Pinot Grigio,’ and it’s not because they just really love Pinot Grigio. It’s because they don’t want to make themselves sound like a fool. We know why people do that and there’s nothing wrong with it on its head; people know what they’re getting with Pinot Grigio and that’s cool. But we want to teach people how to order beyond that, and really understand what they’re ordering.”
In practice, at the Wine Lab, Villela imparts that and so much more.
“There couldn’t be a better person [than Paolo] from a training standpoint,” says Sheila Haile, BRG’s director of marketing. “He knows how to speak to people in a way that they can get it, comprehend it, and then talk about it intelligently. And, in the Wine Lab sessions, he answers all of the questions most people have about wine, like ‘How do you know what’s a good wine?’ and ‘What kind of words can you use to describe what you like?’ The Wine Lab sessions encompass so much of what Paolo teaches the staff, so it’s not like kid gloves. This is the deep dive—and still he makes it fun.”
This, again, is what it all comes back to at Verace: The desire to push the envelope and continue to offer guests not only excellent food, but exciting experiences—and to work with talented and passionate professionals who are exhilarated by the challenge of the accompanying free rein.
Among these talented and passionate professionals is chef Dylan Hoyt. Having first joined BRG four-and-a-half years ago, as a cook at H2O in Smithtown, Hoyt steadily climbed up the ranks until he became Verace’s executive chef six months ago.
“I’m so inspired by having an open kitchen here and being able to interact with guests,” says Hoyt. “I love being able to see the looks on their faces and hear all their comments when the food comes out. All I want is to give people the best food they can possibly get from this kitchen, so to look out and see them enjoying it is an amazing experience for me.”
Also amazing for Hoyt is Verace’s summer Wine Dinner Wednesday series. Each Wednesday in the summer, BRG pairs a local winery with each of its restaurants—alternating between Verace, Tellers, Prime and H2O in Smithtown and East Islip—for a special dinner with wine pairings.
“It’s glorious,” says Hoyt. “You get to sit down and write out these wine dinners, make whatever you want to make, and then execute it. That’s something that only happens at BRG. It’s amazing. And, all in all, we do it because it makes the guests happy to enjoy such a unique experience. That’s really what we care about here.”
And it shows.
The next session of the Wine Lab at Verace will take place on Thursday, April 4, from 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. For more information, please visit Verace’s website.