Sunday, May 29, 2011

Prezza Leaves Quite an ‘Imprezzion’

Widely-known fact: the North End boasts an extraordinary number of Italian dining establishments. Lesser-known fact: the majority of these eateries serve up good (but not great), often overpriced fare. Prezza, chef owner Anthony Caturano’s critically praised restaurant, now in its tenth year, offers food that as big on flavors and portion sizes as it is on one’s expense account (yes, Prezza is ‘pri…zzey).

Located on Fleet Street, just a stone’s throw away from bustling Hanover Street, Prezza’s ambience is hip, yet subdued. Its interior includes dark wood, warm, welcoming beige walls, dim lighting, and walls adorned with contemporary artwork. Prezza is one of those rare places where you can either go to be seen or simply settle into the background while sipping on a nice glass of wine.

And there is an abundance of wine at Prezza, almost to the point of intimidation. There’s a 30 page selection, including pricey reserves, and at first glance, this navigation process can be overwhelming. Fortunately, our server is well-versed with the entire menu, and recommends a less costly alternative (prices dramatically fluctuate, and $30-50 bottles can be had but require an astute eye). He also keeps our meal at a leisurely pace and is quick, confident, and spot-on with each of his suggestions over the course of the evening. Wine consistently flows in and out of our glasses. Life thusfar at Prezza is good.

So, too, is the cuisine. For starters, the crispy shrimp served with Italian slaw and cherry pepper aioli ($16) is beautifully and brightly plated, four nicely sized crustaceans – heads and all – wrapped in kataifi (phyllo). One of my dining companions is underwhelmed with the dish’s lack of heat, but I couldn’t disagree more, enjoying the mildly fiery aftertaste that each bite left in my palate. As we were discussing the dish, our server interjected that there was a hint of harissa (a Moroccan spice) thrown in with the shrimp which gave them their added spicy kick. Almost equally as good was the wood-grilled squid and octopus with braised white beans and toasted parsley ($15). The seafood, once again, was generous in portion, meaty and smoky, while the white beans in which it soaked was more like a hearty broth, not so much a contrast to the fish, but more like a sumptuous, satisfying additional layer of flavor. A generous half portion of lobster far diavlo with saffron tagliatelle with roasted tomato, fennel, and lobster meat ($18) was also a hit with most of the table. While I was particularly fond of the lip-smackingly good sauce, I found the plate served lukewarm to mildly cold, and the tagliatelle slightly overcooked and not as al dente to my liking.

Entrees also struck positive notes. Caturano’s take on paella with saffron (sensing a theme here?) rice, chorizo, chicken, tomato, lobster, swordfish, shrimp, clams, mussels, and squid ($36) is sure to rival any of Boston’s finest. Unlike more brothy (translation: more goopy) versions I’ve recently sampled, this one stands out, particularly the rice and the manner in which all of the ingredients are plated independent from one another. Like the crispy shrimp before it, it’s a stunning dish to behold. Likewise the wood-grilled Veal Porter House with saffron lobster risotto, broccoli rabe, and red wine sauce. At $44, it’s a pricey dish, but it will reward the diners who invest in it. The large, smokey cut perfectly cooked medium rare and is downright succulent when dipped into that rich, heavenly wine reduction sauce. The accompanying risotto included generous lumps of lobster, and might well rival some of the city’s best (yes, even Mistral’s). And don’t even think about passing on Prezza’s super creamy, super dreamy polenta, served in a pool with tomato, basil, and parmigiano. It’s the best $8 you’ll ever spend for a side dish.

Prezza also offers a creative assortment of desserts, a rarity in most North End establishments. While I’m initially disappointed that their fig turnover with pistachio gelato has recently been taken off the menu, our server tells me not to fret. He recommends the limoncello cheesecake on biscotti crust ($10), and it’s delightful. Also served with shaved coconut, the cheesecake is surprisingly light and airy (I detest dense versions) despite its ricotta filling, while being just tart enough without bordering on overpowering. The server is also high on the white chocolate bread pudding with vanilla bean ice cream and crème anglaise ($10), evoking a smirk from this diner given how ubiquitous the dessert has become. My skepticism, however, quickly transforms into near astonishment as I take a bite, and then additional others, realizing how flavorful this confection is with no accompanying sauces to be seen or had on the plate.

Flavorful food, generous portions, gracious and polished service – these are the signs of a winning establishment, even in spite of a hefty price tag. Special occasion restaurants, after all, should be in the business of making one feel special, right? Given this accomplishment, Prezza is nothing short of ‘imprezzive.’

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