Monday, December 18, 2017

Dining at Eataly’s Terra a Guilty Pleasure

When news recently broke about celebrity chef Mario Batali’s decision to step down as partner from his culinary empire at Eataly due to allegations of sexual misconduct, I must admit that while I was not all that shocked about his inclusion on the seemingly endless list of celebrities swept up in these types of scandals (also, go read the Boston Globe’s Devra First’s scintillating article covering widespread sexual misconduct in the city’s restaurant scene), I was deeply saddened and disappointed. Saddened that the orange-crocked chef - whose unbridled passion for cooking was obvious, only exceeded by his willingness to educate and make accessible such complex recipes to the general public – could act so foolishly by mistreating his female employees who have been so critical to Eataly’s (and other well esteemed establishments such as Babbo) success over the years.

                So I must write this review as objectively as possible, removing any distaste I have over Batali’s personal flaws and focusing on the actual tastes at Terra, Eately’s third and latest restaurant addition (following Barbara Lynch’s more seafood-centric Il Pesce) that’s now over a half-year young. Walk past countless luxury specialty stores, and you’ll find the less-glitzy Eately, which resembles a commercialized, massive Italian marketplace. Terra sits directly above it on the third floor, and its breathtaking dining room is one of the city’s finest, filled with towering, scenic skylights (look, I can see the Top of the Hub from this view!), abundant greenery, and even actual shovels and rakes adorning the walls. It’s akin to eating al fresco in your mother’s extravagantly maintained garden. Just behind the chef’s counter lies an active wood fire Italian grill where meats of all varieties and skewers are aflame in all of their smoky greatness. Enormous wine barrels barricaded behind a glass wall contain oak-aged beer on tap. And make no mistake: in spite of the recent news, this place remains as bustling, lively, and energized as it did from day one (perhaps a bit too rambunctious at times, and it is suggested to grab a seat at the back of the dining room to allow for conversations to flow as easily as the wine).

                The menu is split into several different categories, as if to take diners on a culinary excursion through some of the finest tastes of Sicily. Most importantly, it’s fun, and executed by well-regarded chef de cuisine Dan Bazzinotti (hailing from his stint at Cambridge’s esteemed wine bar, BISq). Some may quibble with smaller-than-average portions, but be forewarned: Bazzinotti’s dishes are extremely rich in flavor (sometimes a bit too much so).

                We begin with duo of nicely toasted bruschetta (1 selection for $5, 2 for $9, 3 for $12), featuring ciascolo (housemade pork sausage), which unexpectedly came in the form of a cold pate with a slightly offputting flavor, while the caponata – with its interesting combination of delicate squash, pinenuts and currents - was a rivetingly sweet delight, texturally resembling Charoset - one of my favorite Jewish delicacies consumed on Passover. Next, we ordered from the spiedini (skewers) section, including polpetti di agnello ($10): 3 oversized lamb meatballs ($10) which upon initial glance, appeared overcooked from the exterior, but whose interior was succulent (although perhaps would still have benefitted from a dipping glaze). My favorite, which also garnered mutual satisfaction from my dining companion, were marvelously charred, tender jumbo gulf shrimp (12), the fleshy meat spiced up with Calabrian chili flakes.

                Our journey continued into primi (things with pasta), which showcased agnolotti coniglio ($21), small, pillowy ribbons of pasta drenched in Luigi Guffanti butter and impressively stuffed with tiny morsels of ground rabbit. While I found the pasta slightly overcooked (I prefer mine al dente, like most native Italians) along with a bit of heavy-handedness with the butter, the dish was a rich, decadent, and thankfully un-gamey flavored delight.

                We concluded our evening in the secondi section with incredibly tender rings of calamari ($24) simmering in a zesty pool of tomato broth alongside a wonderfully inventive, seasonal combination of caper berries, olives, pine nuts, and currants. While our hearts gravitated to captivating, in-season dessert selections such as warm semolina pudding with pears and candied pumpkin seeds, and a citrus crostada, our stomachs simply couldn’t muster another bite.

The cocktail program, while consisting of slightly modest pours (at about $14 apiece), were much like Terra’s cuisine itself: extremely complex and altogether enjoyable. The stiff, sweet Il Teatro (under Bold and Daring options, $14)) was a dazzling blend of the restaurant’s hand-selected Russell’s Reserve single barrel bourbon with amaro, while the innovative, refreshingly spicy Fumo Nero was a sweet and smoky riff on the margarita, containing Del Maguey Vida mezcal, amaro, some more of that wonderful Calabrian chili, smoked black sea salt, and pineapple.

One would expect service at one of chef Batali’s restaurant to be exceptional, and Terra, at least for this evening, does not disappoint. Our waiter is amiable, patient, and extremely knowledgeable about the menu.

It’s undoubtedly difficult for me to promote any restaurant whose ownership is rightfully under scrutiny for all the wrong reasons. But make no mistake: Terra – from its immensely enjoyable cuisine to its stellar setting and service – gets most things right. I won’t fault you for not eating there out of protest. But for me, consider it a guilty dining pleasure.