Saturday, August 5, 2017

Liquid Art House is a Culinary Masterpiece

Several years ago, following the economic downturn, upscale restaurants like celebrity chef Michael Schlow’s long departed, yet fondly remembered flagship, Radius, succumbed to the tighter budgets of their once loyal clientele. Smaller plates became more en vogue, and so began the downfall of other legendary eateries including the recently departed, highly regarded Clio under Chef Oringer (don’t fret too much for him, though, as global small plate haven Little Donkey, Italian staple Coppa, legendary South End Spanish tapas mainstay Toro, and sushi headliner Uni all continue to thrive).

                Sufficed to say, with the economic upswing, there are more restaurants opening that dare to be different – albeit quite expensive, but well worth the investment for special occasion dining. Take, for instance, Asta, Alex Crabb’s inventive prix fixe only menu that takes diners on a wild, delightful culinary adventure. And only a few years into its run, there’s Liquid Art House, the perfect confluence of literal and culinary artwork for customers’ viewing and tasting pleasure.

                The visually arresting space – located at the corners of Arlington and Stuart Street (how fitting and of no small irony that LAH sits at the cusp of the Theatre District) – dually serves as both a high-end restaurant and contemporary art gallery where all of the artwork is available for purchase. Owner Ruta Lukian’s backstory is a most fascinating one: born in Lithuania, emigrating to America, flourishing as a Wall Street investment banker, and ultimately deciding to fulfill her dream of opening a place for artists, art lovers, and diners alike. The ambience is impressively grandiose, a hybrid of cosmopolitan and avant-garde. A striking rotunda marble bar resides smack dab in LAH’s center, with an even more strikingly beautiful, massive, purple hand-blown Venetian glass chandelier whose claw-like shape appears to almost be reaching down from the giant 24-foot ceilings and virtually grabbing hold of customers. Abstract artwork both large (majestic canvases) and small adorn the giant walls and flows into the dining room. Even the bathrooms scream chez chic, as evidenced by stunning semi-nude painted portraits of mermaids painted on frosted glass doors.

                Fortunately, LAH has not lost any of its culinary innovation left by its notable predecessor, Rachel Klein (who opened up her own endeavor, RFK Kitchen, in her resident Needham to mixed critical reception). Chef Johnny Sheehan – whose impressive pedigree includes graduating from Le Cordon Bleu, stints at aforementioned Clio and Uni under Oringer’s tutelage, and most recently at Plymouth’s New World Tavern) – has earned several culinary accolades, and it’s easy to ascertain why. He’s not only followed the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ deconstructed style that became a calling card for Klein, but infuses his own unique riffs on some of the most exquisite fare I’ve had the fortune of tasting in quite some time.

                The evening begins inauspiciously enough, as a first batch of deep-fried salt and pepper prawns ($19) are woefully and visibly overcooked, the meat dry where it should be moist and tender. This is brought to the attention of our genial and knowledgeable waitress – who, oh by the way, did not serve us this initial course – and she is deeply apologetic about the mishap, stating had she laid eyes on the prawn’s dark exterior, would never have brought this tableside (we wholeheartedly agree with her). She offers to have the kitchen bring us a second round, and this time they are cooked to perfection, the spicy orange chile oil with peanuts now in vibrant harmony with the juicy, succulent meat (the entire mishap and quick, professional correction by the waitstaff harkened back to my visit to opulent seafood restaurant, Ostra, where a badly charred plate of grilled octopus was quickly, and most deliciously rectified). While I found the doughy, sesame-seed encrusted exterior of Himalayan chicken momos ($10) a bit too chewy for my taste, these dumplings stuffed with ground meat were easy on the palate given the addictive, innovative pool of black pepper tomato sauce in which they swam. For such a typically gaunt bird, a surprisingly generous amount of tender meat accompanies LAH’s quail – the majority of which is graciously deboned by the kitchen – and is uniquely stuffed with sweet Asian forbidden rice which enhances the flavor component of what is often considered by many to be the flounder of birds.

                And Sheehan’s piece de resistance is not to be missed. Pan seared halibut ($39) is unlike any other version of the meaty fish I’ve sampled. It’s a ginormous, beautifully pan-seared (resembling a hash brown in texture) tender cut, and its eye-popping to look at. Akin to an abstract Picasso masterpiece, there are many deconstructed elements to the plate that miraculously come together – tiny, crunchy hearts of palm, pineapple chunks, yellow-orange beads of jellied mango passion fruit, and pea-green dollops of chile-mint vinaigrette. An aromatic Thai curried coconut broth is than theatrically poured around the fish. This is seriously complex, pristinely executed fine dining at its peak, resulting in a smorgasbord of flavors ranging from sweet and creamy to crunchy and spicy. It’s simply divine and will undoubtedly be topping many dining critics’ top dishes in Boston for 2017.

                Executive pastry chef Ryan Boya’s uniquely shaped sweets (all $14 with exception of sorbets) rival Sheehan’s dishes innovation-wise, many of which were apparently inspired by the World of Tomorrow architecture at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Breakfast in a NYC Hotel Room is a deconstructed masterpiece, consisting of a thin bagel chip onto which peanut butter and cream cheese mousses, peanuts, and coffee milk ice cream, all of which is left for diners to playfully schmear onto the bagel chip. It’s whimsical, fun, and delectable.

                And that dish encapsulates my experience at LAH. And oh, what an experience you’ll have. While you’re left with a bill that might approach the price of a low-level Picasso (kidding!), you’ll no doubt me reminiscing about your time there for days, if not months and years later. In the trustworthy and innovative hands of Lukian and Sheehan, Liquid Art House has successfully brought artistic fine dining style to Boston.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Disappointments Abound at Corfinio

Sometimes, simpler is better. Several years ago, Peter Kuplast successfully opened Italian eatery Cibo Matto Caffe in what was formerly a Bertucci’s in his native Mansfield. That quaint, casual modern Italian eatery quickly became a culinary staple at the bustling cross-section of Routes 106 and 140, with its wood-fire stove producing bubbly, charred pies, alongside delectable pasta dishes and inventive seasonal cocktails. A couple of years ago, Kuplas decided it was time to expand his business venture into Easton with Corfinio. The restaurant resides in a more expansive space once occupied by Fresh Catch and its name harkens to the city in Italy’s Abruzzo region. Portions of Cibo’s menu has been transported here, along with the same and sometimes expensive price points given Corfinio’s suburban digs.

                But two major problems exist here. Whereas Cibo’s dishes more often than not nail flavor and execution, Corfinio’s falter. And while the menu at Cibo often surprises and delights with its scope and specials, Corfinio’s feels consolidated, redundant, and truthfully, not all that creative. More ho-hum, traditional pizza and pasta dishes reside here with occasionally appealing flourishes peppered in (fire-roasted artichoke hummus).

                The restaurant’s interior is certainly swanky enough, with a grandiose, antler-shaped chandelier dominating the main dining room, cozy green banquets and a large bar (along with a 12-foot-long chef’s table where diners can enjoy a 7-course tasting with wine pairings. It’s frustrating, however, when upon making a reservation and stating that my wife and I were celebrating a 15-year anniversary dinner, that the hostess explains she’ll have us seated in one of said banquets, only to be seated at a small table (and that the restaurant proceeded to seat a family with young children directly next to us when several other tables remained unoccupied at the time). Not once was our anniversary ever mentioned by the staff. That’s just poor front-of-the house management.

                Antipasto ($10-18) are disappointing, starting with crispy brussel sprouts ($10) that possess neither the crunchy exterior (softly breaded) nor fiery kick (bland cherry pepper aioli that lacks any trace of said cherry pepper) that the menu promises. Mussels saffron ($13) contain tiny morsels of the crustaceans, while the white wine sauce in which they are reduced still reeks of the smell of wine (if cooked properly, the wine odor should be undetectable), evidence that the kitchen needed to simmer the broth at least another five to ten minutes. Two accompanying large slices of grilled crostini, however, were decent enough, if there’s a positive takeaway here.

                Pasta – a focal point and strength at Cibo – was equally and surprisingly off-key at Corfinio. Fettucini Bolognese ($21) lacked finesse, with droopy, overcooked strands of pasta (not even remotely close to al dente) and the barely-there-at-all sauce that was not only unseasoned, but resulted in dried-out chunks of ground up veal, pork and beef.

                Cocktails ($11) were slightly better, but the bartender had a heavy hand mixing an Old Easton (the restaurant’s riff on the Old Fashioned) that was excessively sweet, the result of an infusion of honey and apple slices that overpower the bourbon, what should be the drink’s star attraction.

                I had heard from close friends who had recently visited Corfinio’s that the eatery’s opening kinks had been worked out, resulting in positive dining experiences. To this reviewer’s eyes (and stomach), Corfinio resembles that annoying little brother vying for attention and trying to emulate his older sibling, but no matter how hard he tries, just can’t keep up and ultimately falls short of expectations. With more sure-handedness and execution from its kitchen and a revamped menu that generates excitement in lieu of yawns, perhaps one day it still can.

Friday, June 2, 2017

A Stroll Down a Suburban Side Street Yields Big Flavors

“Come for the food, stay for the family.” Sure, this slogan may sound clichĂ© and most certainly has been exploited by countless restaurants that classify themselves (some much less accurately than others) as family-friendly establishments. But I cannot recently recall a more recent, rewarding dining experience than my trek out to Norwood’s Vico. Opened nearly three years ago, this quaint, refreshingly unflashy restaurant’s (seating fifty patrons) name is apt given its Italian translation of ‘side street,’ reflecting its location just off the town center. Vico’s furtive location, however, doesn’t necessarily keep it a secret from the public. Far from it in fact, as evidenced by the loyal customers who continue to pack into the restaurant seeking fresh, highly affordable Italian cuisine.

                Vico’s setting is casual, cozy and intimate. While there’s no bar (only wine and beer are served), several booths drape along the walls while pendant fixtures dangle from the ceiling. The formality of white tablecloths is quickly offset by wooden floors and even more importantly, a cordial wait staff. Executive chef/owner Vincenzo Loffredo, who hails from Foggia Italy, makes several tableside appearances to chat with his customers, while his equally affable wife, Maria, dually serves as both hostess and our server that evening (her inquiry following our appetizer course about if we desired pacing out entrees several minutes was a simple, sincere and welcomed gesture that is incredibly rare nowadays).

                While Vico’s menu is considerably smaller than other Italian eateries, it’s packed with a slew of appealing, tasteworthy dishes, and that’s not including numerous house specials that change daily. Each dish is handcrafted, and Loffredo credits his usage of fresh ingredients to both his proximity to seasonal ingredients during his childhood on a farm along with his tutelage under chef Franco Caritano. Portion sizes are incredibly generous (enough to feed a family!) at incredibly reasonable price points (entrees typically top out at $20, desserts at $7, and generous pours of wine – including a velvety, ripe flavored Argentinian Mendoza – range from $7-9 by the glass while bottles are very accessible).

                Complimentary house-made garlic focaccia and green olives are provided at the outset, which prompted my sole quibble of the evening: the bread could use a touch less salt along with an accompanying dipping oil. Antipasto misto ($14) features a trio of fresh Italian meats (prosciutto di Parma, sopressata, and imported salame), accompanied by provolone, roasted peppers, pickled eggplant, and imported grilled artichokes. The salty-spicy flavor profile of the meats and vegetables meshed well atop the crunchy, aforementioned focaccia. Entrees fared even stronger, beginning with the visually striking Spaghetti Alla Pescatora (at $25, while the menu’s most expensive dish, remains an absolute steal), which showcases incredibly fresh, housemade squid ink spaghetti topped with ample amounts of mussels, clams, shrimp, calamari, and scallops, all topped with an addictively spicy tomato sauce. It’s unsurprisingly a huge hit at our table. Also memorable is bucatini amatriciana ($19), hollow spaghetti blended with red onion, San Marzano tomatoes, slices of pecorino, and my favorite ingredient, pancetta, which infuses the dish with a crunchy, peppery bite. Two house specials are also standouts: meaty, yet tender swordfish with capers and the Pappardelle Cacciatore, with perfectly executed egg noodles laced with minced lamb, veal, and beef, all in that same delectable spicy tomato sauce whipped up by Chef Loffredo.

                Desserts are worth staying for given their value along with the housemade tiramisu topped with pieces of dark chocolate.

                In a time where city restaurant closings are sadly occurring at a feverish clip given high rents and high prices for customers, many restaurant owners could rip a page out of Loffredo’s handbook: settle down in the suburbs, provide high quality fare at affordable prices, and offer doting service to boot. Yes, Vico may be situated on a side street, but it remains very much on the public’s mind as one of the area’s most attractive dining options.

Monday, April 10, 2017

An Avenue Worth Driving To for Fine Dining

Avenue, the brainchild of husband and wife Josh and Jessica Foley (the couple met during their stint at the long-esteemed Harvard Square restaurant, Harvest, during the mid-90s), opened in the epicenter of Medfield in May, 2016, and as evidenced by one very busy Saturday evening, the eatery has hit the ground running and never looked back. The Foleys envisioned a modern, casual bistro, and they’ve certainly accomplished that in terms of Avenue’s ambience. The building in which it resides was renovated, whose floor-to-ceiling windows provide a stunning view of Main Street and the nearby Medfield Town House. Pleasant, smoky aromas emanate from the open kitchen, namely from a wood-burning oven. My lone complaints, albeit minor: the front of the house can be a bit chaotic and cramped at peak times, especially if the small bar area happens to be full of patrons. Nearby are small booths reserved for customers eating dinner, and it’s easier than not to bump into busy servers. Also, in spite of recently installed acoustical ceiling panels, conversations can still remain challenging.

                Josh Foley, who also does double-duty as Executive Chef, offers seasonal American cuisine, from wood grilled flatbreads and meats to seafood, in his attempt to recreate California’s farm-to-table concept. In most instances, I am delighted to affirm that the Foleys have succeeded.  Let’s begin with the bad news: potato crusted Point Judith calamari ($12) does the Rhode Island squid a disservice. While accompanying fried sweet onions and peppers are an inventive touch, the fish’s buttermilk coating is bland and could benefit from some seasoning in the form of salt and pepper, while the tepid tartar sauce adds little anticipated heat. Much better are the wood-roasted flatbreads ($14-16), whose nicely charred crust can be attributed to imported Italian flour incorporated into a pie that is cooked at 750 degrees for only three minutes in that impressive wood-burning oven. The aptly named Avenue consists of house made pork sausage, wild mushroom, and onion jam. The jam’s sweetness meshed well with the spiciness of the meat, whereas the kitchen’s heavy-handedness on the mushrooms resulted in soggier slices than I’d preferred. My personal favorite was the unique and satisfyingly spicy shrimp fra diavolo.

                Entrees were even more enticing, starting with a generous serving of sausage orecchiette ($22), the pasta served perfectly al dente, with minced, spicy house fennel sausage. My dining companion believed the accompanying broccoli rabe was too bitter for the dish, but I politely disagreed, believing the vegetable a worthy partner to the spicy meat in terms of its flavor and textural contrast. While the slightly dense potato gnocchi ($22) could have benefitted from another minute or two of boiling to render the pasta more pillowy and light, I nearly forgot about that having consumed a forkful of thin, ultra-tender sliced short rib, which in this version is playfully served atop the pasta in lieu of being cooked inside. Cast iron seared Scottish salmon ($27) also drew considerable applause, consisting of a generous portion of moist fish seasoned with herbed farro and Tuscan kale.

                But one cannot – I repeat, cannot leave Avenue without sampling their signature wood-roasted Argentinian Brasa Natural chicken. I, for one, have remarkably never ordered chicken out. While I certainly appreciate a well-cooked bird, it’s undoubtedly less appealing than other, sexier options (lamb, duck) and delicious enough when grilled at home. But upon stealing a glance of the dish at a nearby table, I just had to have it, and I’m glad I did. According to our polite waitress, the incredibly tender meat is attributed to how the bird is prepared, hung for six hours and then slow cooked in front of that wood-burning oven’s flame. The dish’s presentation is nothing short of stunning, evoking envy from the table. Inventive accoutrements include a layer of crisp almonds, sweet currants, roasted Anjour pear (which admittedly lost some its sweetness during the cooking process), and what’s humorously labeled grilled peasant bread salad (a fancy term for Avenue’s house bread that is sliced into small chunks with the bird’s charred scallion juices cooked into them; The result? Gooey, crispy, goodness). The dish is exemplary in terms of its stunning presentation, technique, and execution, and it’s nothing short of a miracle that it makes me consider ordering chicken the next time I dine out.

                While desserts (all $9) may not be as exciting as that chicken, they provide an enjoyable conclusion to the evening. Ricotta cheesecake is thankfully not overly dense, served with strawberries, balsamic, basil cream and almonds. The inner child in me allows me to gravitate towards the butterscotch blondie sundae, a warm, gooey, yet ultra-thin slice served with a dollop of sea salt ice cream and peanut brittle.

                Inventive cocktails ($12) from the bar feature a potent riff on the Mai Tai called the Mai oh Mai, blended with white rum, toasted cinnamon, and pineapple. While I was disappointed that the Fig Get About It (made with fig-infused rye) was out of stock that night, the bartender graciously went off-menu to concoct a subtly sweet, rye-infused cocktail called the Toronto that I’d highly recommend. Roughly five selections of white and red wine are available by the glass ($9-12), including a smooth, silky ’14 Noble Tree Cabernet out of Sonoma. About ten or so different New England drafts and bottled and canned beers ($6-8) are also available, including a light refreshing Queen City Brewery pale lager.

                Service is knowledgeable, friendly, and - with the exception of a delayed bread basket to the table and a couple of late-arriving cocktails – attentive. Pair that with fairly reasonable price points for well-executed cuisine in a chic suburban setting, and voila: Avenue is an address I won’t soon be forgetting.


Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Chicken Kebab Offers Big Portions, But Could Use More Seasoning

Stoughton desperately needs an influx of restaurants, and this quaint Mediterranean-inspired dining spot, which inhabits the space once occupied by a Bajan restaurant in Stoughton's still dilapidated town center (where a town fire ravaged a number of buildings years ago and which remain vacant), wants to please its customers.

Chicken Kebab should be considered more of a takeout restaurant, but there are a half dozen tables inside for sit-down meals. The walls are vibrantly painted orange, and there is a large glass case behind the counter in which delicious desserts (including variations of ultra-flaky, moist baklava - my personal favorite, coconut flavor topped with pistachio) can be viewed, along with the restaurant's friendly owner preparing dishes in the kitchen.

While portions are absolutely monstrous for the price (appetizers top out around $7, while entrees that can comfortably feed up to 4 people top out around $18), some plates succeed more than others. We start with hummus ($5.95), whose accompanying warmed pita bread is comforting whereas the hummus itself is a tad heavy in texture and surprisingly bland, desperate for an infusion of seasoning. More appealing is a mountainous Shepard's salad ($6.95 for large portion) consisting of cucumbers, peppers, onions, parsley (which could have been inserted into the hummus), red and green onions, vinegar and oil.

Entrees are equally hit or miss. While the Mixed Grill ($17.50) succeeds with its juicy chicken and sweet grilled tomatoes and onions, it falters with its shockingly overcooked, bland, underseasoned meats, ranging from thinly pounded slices of lamb shish, adana (long, minced meat kebab), kofte (Turkish meatball), and doner. The restaurant also needs to clarify on its menu that the dish's accompanying peppers are intensely hot peppers - one large bite left me gasping for air. Pity that the restaurant is out of whole striped bass, which is swapped out for a disappointingly bland serving of sea bass. One dining companion complains that her plate's flavor is offputtingly bitter.
Service is a bit disjointed given the small space and one server, but friendly enough. Alcohol is not served, but the restaurant does stock a number of interesting tropical fruit juices (including zippy ginger pineapple).

I truly hope that Chicken Kebab succeeds. Stoughton needs more restaurants like these to help enliven its town center. Customers will appreciate the large portions and affordable price points, but the owners will need to refine their technique in the kitchen to ensure a successful long-term stint. Chicken Kebab could both literally and figuratively benefit from more seasoning.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Easton “Lucky” to Add Shino to Its Dining Scene

Shino Restaurant opened its doors in South Easton last month, and local residents have most definitely taken notice. On a recent Saturday evening, he bar scene is lively at the front of the house, where co-owner Allan Yee – a bar manager for over two decades at esteemed Boston restaurants including Jae’s CafĂ©, Sibling Rivalry (both now sadly shuttered), Oishii, and Chestnut Hill’s Bernard’s – can be seen perfecting inventive cocktails such as a potent, well-balanced Ginger Manhattan (infused with ginger beer) and a Mezcal Mule (a playful riff on the Moscow Mule, swapping out vodka for tequila, while an edible flower provides a spicy kick that puts the mule in Moscow). So, too, is the dining room bustling with couples and families, while calm, friendly, attentive wait staff keep service seamlessly flowing. Yee, himself – a genuinely engaging owner who is excited to join the Easton community and is eager to ensure his customers’ satisfaction – can frequently be spotted socializing with each table.

                Shino, which is situated directly off of Route 138 in a small shopping plaza next to the popular Mexican restaurant, El Mariachi, is conceptually based on a Japanese izakaya, Yee states. The izakaya is a casual Japanese gastropub where patrons can sample both innovative Japanese dishes along with more traditional ones (many foodies may be familiar with this type of restaurant when O Ya owners Nancy and Tim Cushman launched the trendy Hojoko in Fenway’s Verb Hotel back in 2015). Yee and his business partner, Long Lam (the duo met at Bernard’s years ago) have created a family-friendly, pub-like ambience that accommodates nearly fifty customers. The eatery features several bamboo fixtures, and Yee revealed that the term Shino in Japanese signifies bamboo artist. According to Yee, it is customary in both Japanese and Chinese culture to offer bamboo gifts to new businesses for good luck, and he laughingly alludes to his own bamboo as lucky. No such luck, however, is needed here.

                My recommendation: travel to Shino with either your family or a large group of friends. That strategy will enable you to sample as many of the affordable, wildly inventive, and delicious array of shareable cold and hot appetizers ($5-14) as possible. Spicy tuna buns ($8) feature minced, sashimi-grade tuna lumped into crispy buns. The texture and seasoning of the fish are spot-on, and the buns’ buttery sweetness is the perfect flavor counterpoint to the tuna’s heat. It’s so good, in fact, that my in-laws – who often shy away from sashimi – raved about the dish. Pork belly ($8) appears in soft buns (Yee gleefully alludes to them as Japanese hot dogs), the meat braised and incredibly tender, so flawless in execution that this once again gains my in-laws’ attention as one of the finest versions they’ve sampled. Gyoza ($6) are fried dumplings with a perfectly seared exterior that rivals its flavorful, minced pork interior. Kaki fry ($7) showcases large, elongated fried sticks infused with potent, fish-forward flavored oyster, served in a sweet pool of tonkatsu sauce along with a spicier mustard sauce. Specialty maki rolls, including the aptly named Route 138 consisting of fried soft shell crab, grilled eel, tamago, avocado, and black tobiko, also impress.

                As memorable as the preceding dishes are, the following dishes are considered showstoppers, starting with the dazzling Shino wings ($9), Yee’s favorite menu item. The wings are a shining example of the kitchen’s consistent, skillful display of preparation, technique, and execution. Yee explains that he takes the wings, pulls the bones out, and then lightly fries them, resulting in an incredibly tender, easy-to-eat piece of meat (the drumsticks themselves are stunningly served upright) slathered in a delectably sweet and spicy garlic chili sauce. It serves as both eye and meat candy. Grilled black cod ($12) is also a big hit, featuring an impossibly moist piece of fish that falls apart at the tap of a fork, its top nicely blackened, the fish swimming in a pool of sweet, sticky miso glaze. It’s a vibrant, lovely dish. Okonomiyaki ($9), a giant seafood pancake commonly served in Japan, is extravagantly displayed with chili fish flakes (that magically give off the appearance that they’re moving atop the pancake) and artfully painted with lines of spicy mayo. The dish is packed with an abundance of seafood ranging from shrimp to squid, and once again evokes adulation from my in-laws, who had recently returned from a trip to Japan where they sampled several versions of the popular dish.

                The word is out, and the crowds are arriving in droves at this new suburban dining hotspot. Shino needs no luck at all. It is the town of Easton that is fortunate to welcome Yee, Lam, and their intoxicating, exciting cuisine and hospitality.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Leandro’s: The Perfect Italian Pub?

Blackthorne Publick House, we hardly knew ‘ye. Taking over the space previously occupied by the lamented Blackthorne (where the food - prepared by a former head chef at Providence’s reputable CAV – often excelled, but the art and music vibe endorsed by its endearing owner unfortunately never fully caught on with locals), Leandro’s Italian Restaurant and Tavern is an undeniable hit. One recent Saturday evening was evidence enough, from the parking lot at near capacity to the raucous bar and bustling dining room. Amidst the crowd chaos, an engaging, humorous hostess whisked us to our table. Gone is the artwork adorning the walls, the musical stage, and the dour black mahogany seating, replaced with warmer, lighter colored tables and walls (but with muted, more romantic lighting). Couples both young and old, along with larger families, seem to be enjoying themselves, and it’s no wonder why.

                Keeping all things in the family, owner Michelle Refinski Leandro manages the establishment, while her husband, Emanuel along with his cousin, Leandro man the kitchen (both have cooked for well over a decade). Their Italian-inspired menu is extensive, while dishes are generous in portion size and well-executed. Prices are extremely reasonable, even considering the restaurant’s suburban locale. What’s not to like?

                Leandro’s features a modest, yet interesting and well-priced selection of wines available by both the glass (a velvety, robust Joel Gott Cabernet, at $11, is a standout) and bottle, while the beer list is equally impressive, ranging from Worcester’s popular Wormtown IPA to a denser Allagash Black Belgian stout out of Maine. Inventive cocktails ($8.50-12) – including the aptly named Midnight in Siciliy, whose combination of bourbon and averna Sicilian amaro is not only smooth, well-balanced, and potent, but whose dark appearance strikingly resembles red wine – are most definitely worth exploring.

                Appetizers ($6.50-14) veer more towards traditional Italian-American cuisine, including stuffed meatballs with prosciutto. Surprisingly, it is a salad - of all things -  that proves to be one of the most satisfying course of the evening. A baby arugula (at $10, the most expensive but most worthwhile salad option), offers the perfect counterpoint of flavors and textures, as the sweetness of soft figs, crunchy pecans, and a lively orange-poppy dressing battle for supremacy against the tartness of crumbled goat cheese.

                Grilled entrees ($18.50-26) are an absolute steal given their mammoth portion sizes and flawless execution. There’s nothing necessarily flashy about these dishes – but boy, they taste mighty good! Take, for instance, the perfectly cooked, nicely seasoned, succulent pork chop ($21) served in a not-too-heavy apple demi glaze, caramelized onions, and served alongside crispy Lyonnaise potatoes. Veal marsala ($19) features thinly pounded, equally tender slices of meat in a rich marsala and mushroom sauce, accompanied by garlic mashed potato.

                Traditional Italian desserts (i.e. tiramisu) offer an appealing, if slightly underwhelming conclusion to the evening. We sample a house-made carrot cake which sadly tastes pre-made, the cake slightly moist if not a tad dry and dense, with an insufficient of cream cheese frosting to satisfy one’s sweet tooth. I’d suggest bypassing these for a chest-warming alcoholic dessert flight such as that wonderfully sweet amaro or port sherry ($12).

                Our dining companions also inform us of Leandro’s weekly specials such as $1 oysters at the bar on Sundays and Mondays, along with Tuesday Tastings that, at $20, gets you three tasting portions and a wine or beer flight. It’s this type of menu flexibility, along with genuine hospitality, reasonable price points, and nicely executed (albeit heavily traditional) Italian cuisine, that only adds to the eatery’s allure and initial wave of success. Leandro’s restaurant team may be all in the family, but it certainly appears eager to extend its culinary family to local residents.