Monday, February 28, 2011

Dining Under the Tuscan Sun at Siena

What better way to experience the culinary wonders of Tuscany, Italy than by way of Providence, RI? Seriously. Siena, located in the heart of Federal Hill on Atwells Ave, delivers finely executed dishes which are heavily influenced by the Tuscan region. Six years after the restaurant’s opening, owners Anthony and Chris Tarro, who grew up in Warwick, RI, have transformed their passion for authentic Italian food and created a menu constituted of what they term Tuscan soul food. Consistently voted Best Restaurant by RI Monthly Readers’ poll, does Siena live up to its esteemed billing?

Siena’s ambience is as warm as Tuscany’s climate. The dimly-lit restaurant’s color scheme includes walls splashed with terra cotta red, yellow, orange, brown, and green hues. An elongated bar with cheetah print seats welcomes customers inside, while a relaxed back room provides a more private, intimate setting.

The Tarro brothers take authentic Tuscan cuisine seriously. Much of their cuisine utilizes regional ingredients such as beans and olive oil, while also incorporating unique cooking methods such as wood grilling.

Appetizers, which average $7-16, were relatively strong. Funghi Portabello ai Ferri ($9) included two generous, meaty grilled portabello mushroom caps baked with goat cheese, caramelized onions, roasted peppers, and crispy pancetta wheels, whose saltiness nicely balanced the cheese’s tartness. It’s a gorgeously executed and well-plated dish. Equally impressive was a visually stunning Caprese salad ($10), which included yellow and red tomatoes stacked high with mozzarella cheese, basil and baby arugula while topped with gorgonzola cheese and balsamic reduction. Zuppa di Vongole Bianco ($10) included littleneck clams sautéed in a white wine, garlic, and fresh herb broth. While the crustaceans were well cooked, the excessively salty broth rendered the garlic crostini unsuitable for dipping.

Generous portions of pasta can be had for very reasonable prices ($17-19). Schiaffoni del Calzolaio ($17) may not have been all that pretty to look at (the tubular shaped pasta are limply layered atop one another), but the combination of ground sausage, San Marzano tomatoes, white wine, crushed red pepper, herbs, and Pecorino-Romano sauce made for a complex, satisfying dish.

Chicken and pork dishes range from $15-19, while Carni (meat) dishes run from $19-29. Costoletta di Vitello ($29) included a heaping 16 oz. wood-grilled veal chop with crimini mushroom, sherry, and veal demi-glaze. Overall, the dish was more than adequate, although I personally didn’t taste the level of smokiness and char that usually accompanies these types of dishes. The meat was also a tad fatty and could have benefitted from a side of starch as opposed to green beans (albeit tasty ones). The Mazo di Giusepe ($29) featured a 16 oz. Black Angus sirloin with sea salt and grilled over hardwood charcoal. The tender meat was perfectly flavored and cooked, and benefitted from a drizzle of Tuscan olive oil as well as a pouring of warm gorgonzola cream sauce. Creative sides that serve 2-4 customers ($4/9) include Pisseli e Prosciutto, tender baby peas sautéed with Prosciutto di Parma.

Desserts (all $7) include Scripelle con Gelato, which features two miniature fried doughboys dusted with cinnamon sugar and served with vanilla bean gelato and warm Nutella spread. It’s a fun, comforting delicious treat. Siena also serves up its popular Budino di Panettone, bread pudding with Italian almond panetone (sweet bread) and served with amaretto, bourbon, brown sugar, and butter glaze.

Cocktails range from $8-10, and two standouts include a potent housemade sangria ($8) and a sparkling grape martini ($9), which blends grape vodka, proscecco, and cranberry juice. Siena also boasts an extensive wine list revolving around approximately fifty reds and another fifty whites from multiple countries and regions including Italy, France, New Zealand, Australia, Sonoma, and Napa. Most wines are reasonably priced ($35-50), while others veer to moderate price points ($85-95). Half bottles ($26-49) are also available, while handfuls of Interesting Red and White wines are promoted.

Service was excellent. Our meal was well paced, while our server was extremely knowledgeable, patient, and amiable.

Overall, Siena scores high for value. Its cuisine is better than much of what is produced in Boston’s North End, at only a fraction of the cost. Complimentary valet parking only boosts the restaurant’s stock. You may not be dining directly under the Tuscan sun at Siena, but it is certainly close enough.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Incontro Lacks the Midas Touch

Incontro, Franklin’s acclaimed upscale/casual restaurant and lounge, had plenty of hype to live up to prior to my arrival. Glowing testimonials from family and friends alike heightened both my anticipation level and taste buds, and I was cautiously excited about sampling its regionally inspired Italian cuisine.

Incontro’s ambience can be best described as uniquely modern, only because the venue itself resides in the newly restored Brookdale Mill, which was originally constructed in 1883. An expansive 14,000 square foot space is set on two floors, the second of which boasts an intimate lounge area – plush leather seats included – encompassing a sleek, elongated bar that leads into a large billiards area. The scene here shouts trendy/casual: it’s a place where people want to be seen but let their hair down all at once. A more formal setting awaits downstairs in the main dining room (or as Incontro’s owners fancily label it, the meeting room), which features a display kitchen in which diners can view their food being prepared.

For starters, the crispy calamari were well executed and drizzled with lemon aioli, pine nuts, kalamata olives, and hot peppers. A tad less aioli and a small infusion of peppers would have better balanced the otherwise finely prepared dish to an even higher standard. Pistachio encrusted boar (resembling two large pieces of KFC but oh, so much more appealing) came with a trio of sweet and spicy dipping sauces and was a standout dish. The meat was moist and tender, whereas many versions come out gamey and tough. The dish evoked a couple of “Mmm, this is delicious,” moments from our dining companions. So far, so good.

Entrees, however, surprisingly fared far worse. My maple glazed pork ($24) came highly recommended by our server, but I found the meat to be woefully overcooked, dry, and oversalted, almost eliminating any semblance of maple flavor on the palate. A shame, given that the accompanying crispy green beans and heavenly light sweet potato mashed were winning sides. Our friends’ steaks (one filet mignon Oscar and a sirloin strip) were cooked to my liking of medium rare. The only problem was that both had requested theirs cooked medium. Clearly, Incontro’s kitchen staff that evening was not well educated on the importance of Meat Preparation 101.

Dessert offered up a small reprieve. A generous slice of carrot cake was moist, not too dense, and possesses a pleasant, not overpoweringly sweet cream cheese frosting. My molten chocolate cake was decadent and gooey enough, although not any more memorable than countless versions I’d previously consumed. The biggest disappointment of the dessert was the fig gelato, which had more hints of coffee flavor to it than fig. The faint traces of fig I was able to detect were located in a small, isolated area of the gelato jammed with figs.

Service was good but far from exceptional. Water glasses were routinely filled and plates hastily removed by competent and polite busboys, while our server was affable enough. But our waitress faltered on a key recommendation (the aforementioned pork dish) and it was one of the busboys, not the server, who responded to a dairy inquiry on the calamari only after it was served tableside.
On its website, Incontro’s owners, Bridge Restaurant Group, claims that its prices are reasonable enough to attract repeat business. With cocktails averaging $11, wines from $9-15, most appetizers exceeding $12 and entrees ranging from $25-50, that statement is certainly up for debate, particularly given its suburban setting (although complimentary valet parking does help a bit). For these prices, Paul’s Palate expects a feast for a king. On my restaurant royalty scale, however, Incontro’s fare is just that: fair, food fit not for a king, but more for a prince, perhaps even a pauper. Despite its glamorous setting, it is Incontro’s failures in the kitchen that prevent the restaurant’s glitter from translating into gourmet gold.