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 d├ęcor 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.