Monday, July 11, 2016

Cielo Has “Sky”-High Culinary Aspirations

                If you’ve ever tired of the Tex-Mex dining invasion that seems to have overtaken the region (like walkers inhabiting the earth on The Walking Dead), then look no further than Braintree’s Cielo (Spanish term for “sky”) for the most authentic Mexican cuisine I’ve discovered in quite some time.

                Cielo’s authenticity can be traced to its ownership team, led by cousins Martin Gonzalez and David Marquez, whose families grew up in Jalisco, Mexico. Their eatery, recently voted Best New Restaurant – South Shore by Boston Magazine, occupies a bright purple building in Braintree Highlands (corners of Washington and Plain Streets), a remote location at the outer reaches of the town that is starved for a successful restaurant following several closures in the past few years.

                Cielo’s festive ambience is as vibrant as its building’s exterior, as customers are warmly greeted into the intimate, slightly cramped dining room, which only holds 12 tables with an 8-seat bar (on pleasant evenings, be sure to grab one of the 16 outdoor patio seats). Wood floors, stone walls, well-placed plants and artwork, and Mexican music blaring on the sound system all make for a homey, relaxed setting. Waiters can also be heard warmly conversing with Spanish-speaking customers.

                A complimentary basket of warmed tortilla chips is brought tableside by our affable waiter (“Sunday is Fun Day,” he jokes). While the chips are decent enough (not greasy, but a tad too salty), the texture of all four salsas (black bean, traditional, salsa verde, and a spicier version) is far too soupy, making scooping a challenge. This only made my wife and I more envious of a nearby table who order a mammoth version of guacamole ($8.25) prepared by a server in a stone bowl.

                Entrees are noteworthy, beginning with huevos rancheros ($7.99), a traditional Mexican dish that Americans may more readily associate with breakfast. Its components come deconstructed: eggs with chipotle and tomato sauce, rice and avocado, but don’t be ashamed of melding everything into a rich mess of flavors. While the eggs are requested over easy – better for the rice to absorb the eggs’ runny yolk – they are disappointingly prepared over medium. No bother, as the dish remains sinfully, spicily delicious, nonetheless.

                Even better and not to be missed are the enchiladas mole poblano ($12.59), consisting of three slim soft tortillas drenched in mole sauce and stuffed with warm chicken. The mole itself is sensational – neither too dense not too sweet like so many inferior versions – packing just the right blend of bitter chocolate and spicy notes, while sliced fresh onion provides a much welcomed textural counterpoint to the soft tortillas.

                Desserts (postres) once again lean toward more traditional, yet well-executed Mexican fare such as cinnamon-dusted churros and wonderfully refreshing, light vanilla custard flan ($7), beautifully punctuated with sweetness by fresh berries and a drizzle of caramel sauce.

                Cielo boasts an impressive selections of tequilas along with nicely flavored, albeit not-all-that-potent margaritas ($10), which include unique flavors such as tamarind and hibiscus. Bypass the inauthentic, tepid coffee.

                Overall, Cielo proves to be a welcomed entry into the local dining scene, filling a much-needed gap in true Mexican dining. Given its above-average cuisine, very affordable price points, fun atmosphere, and friendly service, the “sky” appears to be the limit for this exciting eatery.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Italian-American Fine Dining Lives (and Thrives) at Capo

Who knew that Italian-American dining would ever be frowned upon in foodie circles these days? Regional Italian-inspired restaurants have popped up in recent years and the seriousness of the dishes those kitchens produced have seemed to taken the pure, unadulterated fun out of what I recall from my childhood – a heaping portion of veal parmigiana with an equally heaping portion of spaghetti and meatballs. These restaurants have gradually, inexplicably lost their popularity, that is until restaurants like Capo emerge. Chef Tony Susi - he of the one widely acclaimed and now sadly shuttered North End staple Sage – has opened up a 300 seat behemoth in – wait for it – the South End. Wait a minute, Southie, you ask? Is Susi’s spaghetti accommodated by Bangers and Mash given the historically populated Irish-American neighborhood?

                Surprisingly, the neighborhood works wonderfully, especially since its gentrification over the past several years and a culinary renaissance led by the group that not only oversees Capo – which opened in mid-February of this year – but also successful eateries Lincoln and Loco Taqueria on bustling West Broadway Street. The locals were hungry, and who ever thought they would gravitate towards the Italian-American cuisine made popular in the North End? Whitey Bulger must be rolling over in his prison cell as we speak.

                One caveat: the restaurant is extremely loud. On a lovely summer night, the floor-to-ceiling windows out front are open, and the gleeful laughter and chatter from the hoard of customers can be heard from afar. The establishment seats 300, with two long, illuminated bars extending from front to back. Here’s a recommendation: grab a booth or table in the back room where a large stone fireplace resides – it is far quieter there, as opposed to the front room, whose terrible acoustics force one to shout for audible conversation. The space - occupied by younger and older clientele - is modern, decked out in white tile floors, brick and repurposed wood walls and spherical lighting. Susi himself can be seen in the open kitchen, in which his oak-fired brick oven pizza is also visibly churning out smoky, nicely charred pies.

                We opt to share small plates under the bar sfizi section of the menu, starting with the creamy, dreamy short rib arancini with herb aoili ($8), rice balls possessing a super crispy exterior and a fontina cheese center packed with ultra-tender pulled short rib that left a dining companion and I consuming in silence and with eyes closed in sheer pleasure. Roasted lamb skewers ($9) are also a pleasant surprise, nicely seasoned with sides of fresh agrodolce peppers and salsa verde that provide a cold, spicy counterpoint to the meat. My only quibble? Wider pieces of meat on the skewers – akin to a thick slab of beef teriyaki – would have been appreciated, as the thin slices made for a more challenging dipping experience. House-made pastas come in half and full portions. Spaghetti Pomodoro ($8 or $16), like most of Capo’s dishes, are simply, yet well executed and nicely plated, served up in a hearty, basil-spiked tomato sauce.

While entrée portions are certainly adequate in size and price (none exceeds $26 and most fall in the teens), be forewarned: they are not at all humongous as other local critics have previously suggested, and none come with any sides, although rather nondescript items such as grilled asparagus can be had for $6-7 apiece. Veal saltimbocca ($25) features thinly pounded meat, tenderly sautéed in a rich white wine and butter sauce, and is topped with prosciutto and a tad too much basil that gives the dish a slightly bitter aftertaste. Better yet are the more traditional, red sauce dishes includeing generous portions of exceptionally battered, pan-fried chicken ($17) and eggplant ($13) parmigiana, harmoniously swimming in a pool of that delectable tomato sauce along with melted mozzarella.

Bar manager Kevin Mabry is formerly of popular, recently re-opened Boston restaurant jm Curley, and he brings his inventive riffs on traditional cocktails to Capo, including a fancified Margerita playfully called the Don Corleone ($12) in tribute to The Godfather (the term ‘Capo,’ after all, signifies Mob Captain in Italian), a sweet and sour blend with Don Julio blanco tequila, Pierre Ferrand dry Curacao, blood orange and lime. A stiffer, no less equally enjoyable option is a fun take on the Old Fashioned called King Cole ($12), bourbon infused with ever subtle tones of more tropical pineapple and banana flavors mixed with Fernet Branca. In the spirit of keeping all things Italian, Capo boasts an all-Italian wine selection, including a rare, much appreciated wine-on-tap program featuring house cabernet, Pinot Grigio, and Rose available by glass ($8), carafe ($18 or $36), or for larger, thirstier groups – jugs ($48).

Desserts are also noteworthy. A non-traditional serving of tiramisu laced with tiny shreds of bitter chocolate brittle is memorable for its surprising lightness and heavy, espresso liquer-tinged alcohol content, although the spongy ladyfingers I seek are somewhat lost in the dish. Rarely sighted, often underappreciated olive oil cake (which I last sampled at Brookline’s Ribelle) gets much love here, the cake ultra moist and topped with marscapone and honey.

In spite of the chaos of the large crowds, service was extremely personable, polished and seamless, particularly after our initial waitress – she of self-admitted three days on the job – was instantly swapped out for a more seasoned waitress who was better equipped to provide recommendations once the front of the house was informed of my wife’s dairy allergy. Several servers, in fact, stopped by to check in throughout the evening, one of whom even checked with Susi to determine what type of clam was used for my wife’s wonderfully garlicky-spicy order of linguine Vongole ($11/$23) given that one of our inquisitive dining companions often goes clamming on Cape Cod.

Upon leaving Capo, one might experience a headache given the extreme noise levels which one only hopes Susi and his staff will quickly remedy. However, given Susi’s well-executed, delicious, and relatively affordable Italian-American cuisine, there is much pleasure to be had to offset that pain. Whitey, it’s a shame that you decided to flee town way back when – you’re missing a highly rewarding meal at Capo. In the words of Peter Clemenza from The Godfather: you’ll want to leave the gun and take the cannoli.



Monday, May 16, 2016

Banyan’s Bark is as Strong as its (Asian-inspired Small) Bites

Don’t look now, but there’s been an Asian invasion overtaking Boston’s dining scene during the past several months. From a pair of Fenway favorites– Hojoko, Nancy and Tim Cushman’s wacky, fun, more affordable riff on the Japanese izakaya, and Tiffani Faison’s successful ode to Asian street fare, Tiger Mama – along with Chef David Punch’s rice and ramen-laden Little Big Diner in Newton, Asian is the New Cuisine. And for good reason: other more longstanding establishments, such as Joanne Chang’s beloved South End Asian tapas eatery, Myers and Chang, and southward, Providence’s innovative, Cambodian-influenced restaurant, North, have perfected the ancient recipe for success. Take Asian small plates, put one’s unique spin on them, and let diners enjoy them in a fun, hip environment. Also integral to the recipe are an engaged owner (Rebecca Roth Gullo, who also runs nearby popular upscale pub, The Gallows) and respected chef (Phillip Tang, formerly of now-shuttered East by Northeast in Cambridge).

                Enter Banyan Bar + Refuge, located on what I consider to be one of the hippest sections of the South End, residing alongside the equally hip Beehive on Tremont Street. Which is ironic, because there’s distinctly more buzz emanating from this neighborhood since Banyan’s arrival. While the iconic Hamersley’s Bistro and Chef Gordon’s universally revered roast chicken will be missed, the restaurant itself, with all of its seriousness, seemed to be well past its prime and out of touch with what locals sought. A romantically lit outdoor brick patio remains a perfect setting for a late spring/early summer meal. Inside Banyan, while the open kitchen remains, much else has changed. Banyan tree themes permeate throughout the space, from floor to ceiling branches (perhaps in tribute to the late Rainforest Café?) to twig-like chandeliers. The quietness and solemnity that accompanied the older crowds whom frequented Hamersley’s has been replaced by modern music and a younger crowd, both of which can lead to rather loud acoustics (nab a corner seat in the back to offset some of this).

The bar is adequately staffed with three bartenders to handle a surge of customers awaiting their tables. And these are some serious bartenders pouring some serious – and seriously fun- cocktails. Ours knows the ingredients inside and out (all of them, he explains, played a key role creating the concoctions), is personable and engaging, making for a highly enjoyable pre-dining experience. The drinks – like the restaurant itself- are unique and fun. The Supreme Leader consists of thai chile-infused vodka and lime – “7 out of an overall heat scale of 10,” our bartender politely, accurately warns ahead of time. The result is refreshing and spicy, although promised coconut flavors are muddled. Several delicious cocktails are served on tap (like The Gallows), including a potent Painkiller that features a dollop of coconut milk foam and a stiff, subtly sweet Tangerine Old Fashion (akin to a citrusy Manhattan, with tangerine-infused bourbon). And if you’re in for real fun, ask for the Kirin Slushie, beer topped with a frozen cloud of what else? - beer. This playful concoction resembles the boozy slushie machine at the adventurous, aforementioned North.

                The menu is split out into various sections, primarily consisting of shareable small plates that one may ultimately not want to share. Under ‘Vegetables,’ the Daikon fries ($8) are thick, perfectly crisped slabs of potatoes served with spicy gochujang ketchup and picked ramp aioli. A lighter option includes a lovely dish fresh peas and edamame ($8), with pickled onion strawberries, five spice tofu and rhubarb. While the combination of flavors and textures initially sound strange – sweet, salty, tart, crunchy, soft – they surprisingly manage to work well together.

                Under ‘Buns and Dumplings and Noodles,’ house beef and broccoli wontons ($12) with fermented black bean and marrow sauce sound appealing, but theyre a bit too doughy and there is no seasoning to serve as a counterpoint to the excessive amount of salt in the dish. It’s the least appealing menu item we sample that evening. Better is the warm lobster served on a toasted house bun ($15), accompanied by delicious honey miso butter and pickled sea beans that wonderfully cut into the sweetness of the crustacean, of which I would have preferred larger meat chunks. Best amongst this group was a clever riff on traditional Italian Bolognese labeled seafood red curry ‘bolognese’ ($16), made with house made ramen noodles (which are surprisingly absent from much of the menu, whereas buns, are ahem…overly abundant.), crispy sweet potato, peanut, and thai basil. While the dish is literally and figuratively a continent away from what Nonna would make, trust me when I say that this spicy, uniquely textured interpretation is a major success.

                My favorite section of the menu involves Tang’s adventurous takes on ‘Seafood and Meat.’ Smoked pork ribs ($9) feature incredibly tender meat that are perhaps a tad too sweet due to a heavy-handedness with sweet potato hoison sauce and are not quite smoky enough. “Takoyaki” ($9) is a beautifully plated dish of braised calamari (in quotation marks since the tako represents Japanese octopus, while Tang playfully swaps this out with calamari) that is converted into fried spheres, topped with nori, aioli, smoky bonito flakes, and sweet soy glaze. It’s lovely to look at and fun to eat – think miniature fried donuts, except the flour replaced with fish. Also, don’t run away from, but instead run towards the fried pig tails ($8), tender pieces of meat served in a rich pineapple sweet and sour sauce, laced with peanut and cilantro.

                Service was unobtrusive and efficient. A dropped fork was quickly replaced, drinks swiftly refilled or replaced, and our waiter was polished and casual. Altogether a highly successful evening. RIP Hamersley’s Bistro. For Banyan and the South End, it’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Rosetta’s in Canton an Italian Restaurant Nonna Would be Proud of

“A bottle of red, a bottle of white, it all depends on your appetite.” I couldn’t shake Billy Joel’s classic ode to Italian cuisine in “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” as I dined at Rosetta’s Italian Restaurant in Canton, MA. The eatery is located in the town center, in an unassuming white building it shares with other tenants and what was once Rosario’s restaurant. Gone are the cramped quarters, rambunctiously noisy atmosphere, and blue collar service, replaced with a front to back dining room that lends to more intimate dining and conversations. The wait staff is friendly and patient, if not a bit too slowly paced (a 2 plus hour sitting on a not so busy Thursday evening). But that’s beside the point. If the rather non-descript building in which Rosetta’s resides is considered unassuming, then consider the food itself - much of it handmade and packed with bold flavors – a declaration that this eatery is a noteworthy addition to Canton and the local dining scene.

This is in large part to its staff, helmed by an owner who served in the Armed Forces for twenty years and strives for perfection, while a key member of his wait staff served as Food Manager for Quincy Hospital for ten years prior to its recent closure. The menu also boasts a very affordable price point (most appetizers are $6-$8, while large entrees range from $12-$16 and desserts top out at $7). The kitchen is also very flexible accommodating requests for substitutions.

Appetizers are surprisingly not Italian-inspired (perplexing sides of nachos, potato skins, and chicken wings don’t necessarily pair well with a bottle of vino). With that said, the BBQ crazy wings my son orders possess a wonderfully crispy exterior and a meaty, tender interior. As for entrees, the veal marsala is the most satisfying version I’ve consumed since Delfino’s memorable take in Roslindale. The veal was extremely tender, while the sauce – one that so many restaurant’s claim can produce but very few properly execute – is pure heaven: a thick, buttery, topping laced with fresh mushrooms. The meat was paired with house-made parpadelle, perhaps a tad undercooked (not quite al dente), but the noodles were a delicious complimentary sauce-sopper, nonetheless. The veal parmigiana was no slouch, either, a mammoth piece of perfectly breaded meat topped with a zesty, hearty marinara sauce.

Desserts are decent, if not less memorable. While the tiramisu’s cake was spongy and nicely soaked in rum, and a spiced homemade carrot cake was warm and comforting, both suffered from excess frosting. I’m afraid White’s Bakery (Brockton, Mansfield) and Montilio’s (Braintree) would be the nearest locations, outside of the North End, to find that perfect cannoli.

Rosetta’s also stocks a very reasonably priced ($6-9 by the glass, $22-40 by the bottle), short selection of wines. About a half dozen reds and whites primarily hail from Italy with a few outliers from California and Washington. A fruity La Maialina “Gertrude” Tuscan red blend and a complex, velvety J Lohr cabernet provided noteworthy sips.

As our meal concludes, I find myself gravitating back to the apt lyrics of that classic Billy Joel tune. “We’ll get a table near the street, in our old familiar place.” That’s what Rosetta’s is: nothing flashy on the outside, taking its place alongside busy Washington Street, and yet, creating surprisingly well executed, flavorful Italian cuisine. This eatery can most certainly become that old familiar place both couples and families should seek out for a satisfying dining experience.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Los Andes Faces a ‘Mountain’ of Scrutiny

If the Andes in South America represent the largest continental mountain range in the world, then the Providence-based restaurant, Los Andes, typifies a steep decline from the lofty expectations and reputation that precedes it. Situated in a rather sketchy, dilapidated neighborhood on Chalkstone Avenue (most definitely off the beaten path from the more polished downtown area and the Italian-American charm of the Hill), the restaurant’s exterior more closely resembles the now shuttered Whitey Bulger South Boston bar Triple O’s (replete with brick exterior, blue awning and illuminated signs from the windows harkening to the 1970s) than a modern, inviting setting. And yet, inexplicably, Los Andes features free valet service and servers in suits and ties that seem out of synch with its ultra-casual ambience and décor (including a large fish tank separating an old-school bar from the main dining room). It’s evident that the restaurant is trying too hard to overcompensate for these shortcomings, and we haven’t even touched our food yet.

                That’s not to say that some of the very affordable Peruvian and Bolivian inspired meat and seafood dishes don’t reach the culinary heights that Los Andes’s name implies. A ceviche martini ($9.95) is stuffed with fresh tilapia, squid, shrimp, and mussels, a solid seafood cocktail. It’s relatively well seasoned with fish sauce, lime juice (perhaps applied a tad too generously given a trace of excess sourness) and cilantro. My dining companion and I - always the adventurous, Anthony Bourdain-like eaters that we are - are fascinated by and immediately gravitate towards a unique special of llama tacos ($11.99), which are packed with surprisingly tender, un-gamey shredded meat. Empanadas de pollo ($2.95) are satisfying, two flakey pastries filled with nicely seasoned shredded chicken (a cheese version, however, is quite bland).

                While most entrees (majority of which range from $11.95-$19.95) show promise, they often fail to live up to the hype. The menu is laced with exciting options at first glance, but upon closer review, is extremely redundant and protein/carb heavy, as most dishes are accompanied by fried eggs, rice, and yucca. The Jalea (Peruvian fisherman medley, $16.95) is packed with a generous portion of seafood that was nicely battered with kiko soy and garlic, but the chalaca salsa it was topped with was far too mild, while some of the fish itself – seemingly undercooked - left my stomach in knots after two unsuccessful attempts to consume it. Paella ($16.95) was a satisfactory, traditional version that could have benefitted from additional heat, smokiness, and a bit more grittiness on the rice.

                Fortunately, I have a sweet tooth, and it was satisfied with a delightful house special of passion fruit coconut cheesecake (all of the desserts were shown off a la carte by our server), the cheesecake airy and light, while the coconut flakers were discernably scrumptious.

                Service was adequate, our waitress knowledgeable and competent enough with the exception of an extremely odd, uncomfortable exchange I shared with her over an incorrectly made cocktail. When I noticed that my drink was mixed with neither fresh pineapple slices or jalapeno liquor, the waitress never apologized, neither offering me a new drink nor comping it altogether from our bill. Instead, she replied that “… the bartender must have been out of pineapple, so that’s why you got what you got.” Neat.

                But given all of the surrounding hype that Los Andes has achieved on reviewer sites like Yelp, the restaurant evokes the same sort of response from me – merely a shrug. What’s the big deal about this place, after all? I suppose if the food is slightly above average quality and reasonably priced, the masses will approve. Me? I’d rather take my culinary expedition elsewhere prior to scaling the culinary heights of Los Andes. Its peaks simply aren’t high enough to warrant enough excitement for a return trip.

Monday, November 23, 2015

This Birch Leaves You Hungry For More

Providence’s Birch has garnered much acclaim since its opening two years ago, right next door to the city’s other revered fine dining restaurant, Gracie’s. Whereas the latter treats its customers like royalty in a more grandiose setting (i.e. tables sparkling with confetti, complimentary amuse bouches throughout the meal, free valet parking, complimentary house baked chocolate chip cookies left in one’s vehicle), the former aims for delivering serious Modern American cuisine, albeit in a minimalist setting and with smaller portions at a similar price point (4 course prix fixe at $49). Is Birch worth the price of admission?

               Chef Benjamin Sukle is considered a big deal in these parts, having previously worked at the Dorrance and apprenticed at one of the world’s most acclaimed restaurant’s, Copenhagen’s Noma. Therefore, one expects big, bold flavors, unique ingredients, and beautiful presentations. Sukle’s wife, co-owner and GM Heidi, happily greets customers at the bar.

               The restaurant’s vibe is casually chic, resembling a sushi bar with a U-shaped, illuminated counter that tightly seats 20 customers (the squeaking sound of seats moving in and out evokes nails on a chalkboard). A friendly, knowledgeable bartender mixes a small list of well-balanced, potent cocktails. Notable options ably blend drier spirits with citrus flavors, from the Royal ($10), consisting of rye, chamomile, sherry and lemon to the Scarborough ($12), which has bourbon, chartreuse, and lemon. Back to that sushi bar theme, Ginjo sake ($12) has a nice clean finish and makes for a refreshing beverage when mixed with dolin blanc and lime.

               Terrific flavors, however, are often overshadowed by petty portion sizes. Sukle himself brings out a chip (yes, one chip) as an amuse bouche. While the preparation and flavors of this chip are intriguing (made of mushroom, filled with apple butter and black garlic), it can only be enjoyed in one small bite. When Sukle states that it is okay to use one’s hands to eat the chip, I almost burst out laughing, thinking to myself, “As opposed to the tweezers I’d need to pick this up?” There is no starch provided at the meal (bread, breadsticks, crackers, anything!), and most courses offer only 3-4 bites apiece. Rhode Island mushrooms with teeny-tiny chicken hearts (and maybe a miniature hazelnut or two) are delicious, but as the elderly Wendy’s spokeswoman once said, “Where’s the beef?” My favorite course is a lovely, tender Rhode Island fluke grilled on the bone with broccoli and potato, but it is gone in 4 bites. Parting is such sweet sorrow. My wife enjoys a nicely cooked suckling pork, but it is a very small, nondescript piece that sits rather limply on the dish and to me, tastes overseasoned with salt.

               Desserts are also whimsical in execution but restrained in portion size, including the Apple, which is a smashed version of the fruit laced with raspberry sauce.

               If you’re looking for a unique dining experience, Birch has the potential to be that dining destination. But with portions bordering on pretentious, it’s difficult to recommend. Birch is Providence’s version of Clio, which boasts fascinating flavors and culinary techniques, but portions at unsustainable price points that literally leave you hungry for more. Clio is sadly closing its doors at the end of this year, and I am hopeful that the Sukle’s will take their cue from the public’s disdain for overpriced cuisine. While in life, sometimes less is more, at Birch, more is desperately needed.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Bigger is Not Necessarily Better at Strega Waterfront

Go big or go home.  That has always seemed to be the mantra of affable restaurateur Nic Varano, who began his empire with North End’s Strega in 2003 and boldly followed that with his flagship destination, Strega Waterfront in 2010. Strega Waterfront, located at Fan Pier in Boston’s Seaport District, is 5,700 square feet of pure opulence, from its dramatic décor featuring multiple fireplaces and flat screen televisions (even caught the Alabama-Ole Miss football game in the restroom!), oval-shaped awnings, a large piano, and Italian-imported flooring to the celebrity clientele (or those that may dress like and think they resemble one) to which it caters. And this is an Italian-inspired restaurant after all, didn’t you know? Mob movies are humorously played on those rows of televisions, while large portraits including the likes of Sinatra and Pacino adorn the walls. Hoo-ahh! The scene is loud and lively. But is Strega’s cuisine under the guidance of Executive Chef Salvatore Firicano as bold and exciting as its atmosphere?

               Pricey cocktails average out at $15 (paying above and beyond is a common theme at most Waterfront-based restaurants, but it’s exacerbated across Strega’s entire menu), and are served either on the rocks on ‘Up’ (straight up, martini-style). While potent, these drinks are not quite as balanced as one would hope. A pomegranate margarita with jalapeno packs subtle heat, but the sweetness of the tequila is a bit lost (as it is in a similar watermelon-flavored concoction). A dining companion’s Bee’s Knees swaps out gin for bourbon, but in this case, the honey and simply syrup with which it is infused is poured with a heavy hand, the drink far too sweet. The Knight Time tastes purely of bourbon, with nary a trace of Grand Marnier, and is quickly removed and substituted with a much more balanced, refreshing beverage consisting of port wine, ginger, and pineapple that lingers on the palate. If cocktails aren’t your preference, the wine list unsurprisingly leans heavily on Italian varieties, but others hail from France and California as well, some reasonably and others, well, not-so-reasonably priced.

               Appetizers are also hit or miss. The surprise of the evening, a lovely roasted beet salad ($16), fares the strongest, the beets just firm enough and sweetened with drizzles of local organic honey, with tart whipped ricotta that balances the sweetness and toasted pine nuts that provide a crunchy textural contrast. While pepper-encrusted ahi tuna carpaccio ($22) is nicely seasoned with spicy aioli, the fish is so thinly sliced that the fish itself is no longer the main attraction on the plate. Fried calamari “Strega” style ($16) is merely average, the squid rings’ exterior too heavily breaded although they go down easier with a spicy arrabiati dipping sauce. The kitchen’s knife-wielding skills are called into question once again here, although this time out, the accompanying pepperoncini slices are sliced too large. The evening’s most disappointing course, however, was one of its most promising: prosciutto wrapped shrimp and pineapple ($22) translates to three so-called jumbo shrimp served atop massive, succulent slices of pineapple (perhaps it should be re-named Massive Pineapple with Wee Little Shrimp?). While the fruit itself is dynamite, it overwhelms the plate. The shrimp themselves are a tad overcooked, and the prosciutto in which they’re embedded - which does have a tendency to naturally be salty - is excessively so and renders the fish virtually inedible. What a shame.

               Entrees fortunately fare better, most notably pappardelle Emiliana ($29), a hearty portion of nicely cooked pasta with a comforting Bolognese sauce laced with diced filet mignon. Even more comforting on a September evening heading into fall is the Zuppa di mare ($50), a heaping bowl chock full of fresh seafood including mussels, calamari, shrimp, and lobster, served in a spicy, ciappino-like broth. Braised short ribs ($39) are roasted all day, resulting in very tender meat, which is slightly underseasoned/undersalted. The dish could also benefit from a different, lighter starch as creamy fettucini with English peas is quite heavy and seems out of place with the meat.

               Traditional Italian desserts are also a mixed bag. While the cannoli ($6) is simply presented, its crispy shell exterior and just-sweet-enough ricotta interior are near perfection and serve as gentle reminders that the North End and all of its beloved pastries are just around the corner. On the opposite end of the spectrum, however, the tiramisu is presented as a large slice of cake in lieu of the standard espresso-soaked ladyfingers, including a superfluous vanilla frosting. Any hint of marscapone and cocoa flavors are wiped away with an excessive amount of rum that’s been baked in. It’s the anti pick-me-up.

               Service is polished, as one would expect given Varano’s emphasis on hospitality and making one feel as if they are part of Varano’s own family. Varano himself even appears on the menu, pictured with other staff members in what appears to be an opening bash event at the restaurant. Brash, you bet, but the restaurant continues to attract throngs of customers, in spite of cuisine that often attempts to goes big but seldom delivers on that promise.