Balena translates to whale in Italian, evoking the grandeur and bounty of the ocean associated with the southern Italian cuisine served here.
That's limited mainly to aperitivo and pastas, though a daily special market price soup, risotto, meat and fish are constantly in flux, and the entire menu is seasonally influenced.
The space formerly home to Tavolino could maybe use some more lightness to the colour scheme, decked out in navy with a copper ceiling, but nevertheless has a moody elegance.
Every meal here starts with complimentary spuntini. A bite-sized pizza fritti is basically a puff of fried dough topped with San Marzano tomato sauce and a sprinkle of parm, and a mini eggplant parm is fried and topped with fresh bocconcini.
Funghi fritti ($15) sees fried oyster, shiitake and cremini mushrooms fried, dusted with pecorino, and served with a lemon wedge to wake up the crispy, cheesy antipasto.
Insalata di rape rosse ($15) veers slightly from tradition by incorporating spicy breadcrumbs and marinated ribbons of heirloom carrot along with almond, goat cheese and arugula.
An off-menu crespelle special ($22) is frequently available here. Built right into a pan, it's stuffed with various fillings, baked, and smothered in a sauce of some kind.
Sometimes they're even filled with seafood, but today's is full of spinach and lots of salty, oozing ricotta, and finished off with a generous slathering of San Marzano tomato sauce and parmesan.
Mezzamaniche alla Norma ($20) stars on the menu. "Short sleeve" stubby pasta tubes are bathed in a sauce loaded with roasted eggplant and topped with a good-sized globe of creamy Wisconsin burrata, basil, and an herb pepper mix.
A verbal menu of house desserts includes a Verona dark chocolate salted caramel torte, as well as other selections like tiramisu or a lemon panna cotta.
An Italian Chianti makes for a good table wine if you're not sure what to order, as it's good with typical red wine food pairings like meat but also works well with lighter tomato sauces and even seafood.
Chef Roberto Granata has previously helmed kitchens at other Italian restaurants Mela, Il Fornello, and Nonna Francesca's Ristorante at Market 63, and actually also teaches cooking classes on such subjects as gnocchi making and fish cleaning out of Balena.
They also do regular aperitivo hours with cheap bites and cocktails.