SRV might be short for Serene Republic of Venice, but on a busy Saturday evening at co-chefs Michael Lombardi and Kevin O’Donnell’s South End venetian bacaro (a setting where small plates termed cicchetti and Italian wines are intended to be shared), it is anything but that. The popular wildly popular eatery, run by the well-respected Coda Group, is bursting at the seams with customers, so much so that the friendly hostess apologizes for a slight wait in spite of our reservation and cordially invites us to the side windows where standing drink tables await those unfortunate customers that have to…well, wait for their drinks. And while impatiently waited for several minutes, a cordial server offers us something to dull our pain in the form, well…cordials, of the meticulously executed, distinctly Italian variety. My dining companion’s pleasant, but not-too-sweet and citrusy cocktail, the 63 Fairbanks, consists of gin, aperol, and elderflower, while my bourbon and amaro (a sweet, Italian after-dinner aperitif) strikes the perfect balance between subtle sweetness and welcomed potency, a creative Italian riff on the more conservative Manhattan. Said hostess then whisks us away to our table, genuinely inquiring about the outcome of my son’s basketball game (I had previously called ahead and asked if we could move back our reservation on account of his suddenly rescheduled game earlier that afternoon). It was a sincere gesture that most definitely did not go unnoticed and set the tone for a phenomenal dining event.
Lombardi and O’Donnell, who first crossed paths at Mario Batali’s esteemed New York outpost Del Posto, clearly possess their mentor’s passion for authentic Italian cuisine, striving and succeeding in re-creating a communal dining sensibility common in the streets of Venice. I would encourage anyone to take advantage of the duo’s Arsenale menu, which at $45 per person, is an absolute steal, comprised of six small-to-midsized snacks, two larger, entrée-style courses, two hearty pasta dishes, and dessert. This extensive prix fixe menu represents a term rarely uttered from the mouths of customers seeking reasonably-priced fine-dining in Boston: value.
One of the rare misfires of the evening is the very first small bite, an underwhelming Nantucket bay scallop crudo with a slightly off-putting flavor resulting from accompanying fermented beet. A soft-boiled quail egg, however, is magical, causing my dining companion’s taste buds to suddenly perk up and exclaim that this bar bite – whose creamy, intensely rich flavor is punctuated by an innovative dash of white anchovy, caper, and garlic pangrattato – rates amongst the finest she’s ever consumed. My ricotta-stuffed red pepper – whose blanched exterior lends to a welcomed crunchy textural contrast - nearly scales those heights, as well. It’s simple in presentation, but like so many of SRV’s dishes, complex in technique and execution while bold in flavor.
Equally satisfying bites follow, including the polpette, a seemingly ho-hum, been-there-done-that pork and beef meatball whose interior is surprisingly, wonderfully tender, not tough and dry like so many other less successful versions, no doubt attributed to the addictive tomato sauce in which the meatball swims. Another traditional Italian standby, salumi misti, features nicely cured Italian meats paired with sweet, vinegary marinated olives that nicely cut into the meat’s saltiness. And if I’m quibbling here, the phenomenal Suca Baruca – an ingenious blend of squash, granny apples for crunchy contrast, and wait for it… lardo, for pure umami richness – would have been best served as a luscious punctuation mark to the meal as a showstopper finale of a dessert, not as a precursor to the forthcoming meat, fish, and pasta dishes.
But come those courses did, and nary a high note did they miss, starting with tuna belly in Saor, the fresh fish sliced into pieces and uniquely paired with picked cipollini (another ingenious stroke of technique) and fennel grapes. A precisely cooked, well-seasoned, enjoyably fatty chunk of lamb belly was equally enticing, served with carrot in pinzimonio, quince, and a saffron yogurt that I admittedly forgot to utilize (and that’s a compliment to the bold flavor profile of the dish).
Whooh! Have you caught your breath yet? Fortunately, with the exception of a quickly corrected, small miscue of the lamb belly a following the tuna a tad too hastily, the pacing throughout the evening was thoughtfully deliberate and spot-on. A rotation of friendly, polished, informed servers thoroughly addressed any dining concerns (such as ‘Can the Arsenale menu be split between a couple where one person has a dairy allergy?,’ to which the response was a thankfully resounding ‘Yes, we can!’). So it’s onto the next chapter of Whirlwind through Venice, with our protagonists discovering good fortune in sampling Lombardi and O’Donnell’s piece de resistance: a pair of hearty, grain-milled pastas made in-house, both of which are spectacularly flavorful and unique, rivaling some of city’s best pasta joints, including Central Square’s Giulia and Batali’s own recent, mammoth Boston entry, Eataly. Thick strands of rigatoni are mixed with cauliflower and mustard greens, creating a wealth of buttery, bitter goodness. I gravitate to the meatier fazzoletti, akin to strozzapreti in texture and laced with spicy sausage, swiss chard, and chickpea.
Given our whirlwind tour, I must admit that the dolce (dessert) portion of the menu is a bit of a letdown, not that Venetian eateries have ever been famous for their confections. While biscotti misti (Venetian cookies) are playfully presented in a cookie jar, the cookies – with the exception of chocolate coconut and merengue varieties – largely disappoint given their blandness.
Fortunately, irrespective of this minor misstep (and perhaps better crowd control mechanisms in place at the front of the restaurant), there’s not a lot to dislike at SRV. With its glass doors opening to an outdoor courtyard, crystal-cut pendants hung at different heights, knotted rope dividers between rooms, and exposed brick walls with wine racks, the restaurant has a festive, chic, casual, inviting vibe to it that, like the menu itself, is a modern, fresh take on the traditional Venetian bacaro. And then there is the open kitchen from which diners can view a team of chefs feverishly working lock-in-step to seamlessly prepare delicious plates that servers swiftly whisk away to their tables. Seamless, delicious, entirely satisfying, and yes, ultimately a serene dining experience, SRV has masterfully transported the culinary treasures of Venice into Boston’s South End.
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