Mammano Mia!

With L’Andana, a Boston culinary ace offers real-deal Italian flavor that raises the bar for suburban dining—and gives city-dwellers a reason to get out of town.


"I guess to get a good Italian meal, you have to drive to Burlington," I said to myself after my first dinner at L’Andana. Quite a surprise—as is finding a vast and elegant restaurant in an almost unmarked location across from a Porsche dealer. The dining room looks big enough to be a car showroom itself: a rectangular space so long and high that furniture can’t much fill it, though the smoked-wood siding on the walls, reminiscent of Connecticut River Valley tobacco barns, and high-backed, deeply upholstered chairs in decorator beige are lovely. The building was once a golf store, and was twice as large before the new owners knocked down part of it to make way for parking spaces.

Who could be making such genuinely Italian food in this unlikely place? The clear taste of fine oil and fresh herbs permeated everything, and, even better, so did the smoky but not overwhelming flavor of aromatic charcoal in the grilled meats and vegetables. An entrée of swordfish paillards ($34) came sliced thin as veal cutlets and cooked until actually done—unlike the giant steaks that most American restaurants buy to impress their customers, but very much like the thin cuts you would find in a place like Sicily. The accompanying grilled peppers and onions, flavored with little more than wood smoke, fresh olive oil, some capers, and sprigs of oregano, made the whole dish seem truly Italian (even if in Italy the portion would probably be about half the size).

Those paillards, the crusty ciabatta with a light-as-air crumb and moistened with olive oil and herbs, the trencherman’s veal chop cut to American height but well grilled, the vanilla and chocolate-hazelnut semifreddos topped with a baked Alaska meringue that could please any child or grownup—it all seems more and more improbable, until you see the business cards arrayed at the restaurant’s check stand. Mistral, Sorellina, Teatro, Mooo…aha! L’Andana, of course, is the latest venture of Jamie Mammano, who knows how to cook like an Italian and also how to please the well-heeled suburbanites who flock to his downtown restaurants. Now he has come to them, bringing along some trademarks: the high-backed chairs, similar to Sorellina’s; the color scheme and rustic-elegant wrought-iron chandeliers, reminiscent of Mistral; the attentive service all his restaurants specialize in.

It seemed too good to be true, and in some ways it was. The virtues that had impressed me and the shortcomings I’d overlooked on my first visit surfaced at another dinner—this time with an emphasis on the flaws. A heavy hand with salt led friends even less salt-sensitive than I to leave an otherwise virtuous main course of grilled chicken half-finished. Friendly but mysteriously slow on a Saturday, the service got only chancier on a quiet weeknight. Glitches did result in apologies and corrections from the staff—a practice every restaurant should study and copy—but were still troublesome. A waiter who vanished when we wanted to put in our order comped our appetizers, saying he’d had to focus for long periods on serving a large group (unsurprisingly, L’Andana has a commodious private dining room). He came over a while later to explain that a second extended wait for our main courses was because the veal chop ($44) is so thick it takes longer to grill than any other entrée.

And so it goes with the food. As overseen by chef Robert Jean, a longtime Mammano collaborator, the ingredients and technique are mostly impeccable. But in everything there’s a tension between simplicity and one element too many. So far, Tuscan restraint—likely inspired by the kitchen’s wood grill, which neighbors forbid in the ritzy locations Mammano’s team has chosen for its other restaurants—has the upper hand at L’Andana. Yet that kind of discipline lost out at the restaurant it most resembles, Sorellina (the two have several dishes in common), whose menu Jean continues to oversee. And if the suburbs say they prefer a little of everything—actually, too much of everything—my hunch is that they’ll get just what they want here.

The first courses were nicely straightforward: salads ($9–$11); wood-grilled octopus ($18); a generous scoop of tuna tartare ($18), flavored with mustard-chili aioli and showily served over ice with large crackers; prosciutto di Parma with thick slices of buffalo mozzarella ($14), accompanied by a dressing based on wood-grilled tomatoes. The soup, a porcini and shiitake broth with Parmesan cream ($12), was the appetizer that I liked best, for its powerful, clear mushroom flavor. I didn’t even mind the un-Italian (and generally useless) foam, which was sprayed over the top like warm whipped cream.


 

Everything from the grill was first-rate. The wonderfully charred rib-eye ($42)—not a plate-covering portion, but priced like one—had a dry rub of cracked mustard seed and dried lemon that gave just the right crust without overpowering the nicely chewy meat. The organic farm-raised Scottish salmon ($29) was as tasty as nonwild salmon gets; a portion of brick-pressed chicken ($22), impressively huge. The accompaniments weren’t generally as good: dull, slightly undercooked lentils with the salmon, overly cheesy grilled romaine and Gorgonzola with the beef. The crisp-skinned roast potatoes and braised greens with the chicken were hearty and simple, but the pancetta in the greens only intensified the way-salty bird.

Pastas follow the Sorellina model of being generously portioned and satisfying, if blurry flavored. Weakest was the tough pappardelle with pancetta, with enough huge pieces of rabbit to make a main course, and seemingly just oil for a sauce ($13 per half-portion, which is ample for most people; $25 for full). Capellini with salt cod, clams, and shrimp ($13/$25) came off dry, and—as is too often true with such a fine cut of pasta—the angel hair tasted overcooked. The best of the three I tried was the rigatoni ($11/$23), with a very meaty but very good Bolognese first perfected at Teatro.

Save room for dessert, as pastry chef Jennifer Pearson bears watching. She seems interested mainly in chocolate, perhaps reflecting her early training with Lee Napoli, an experienced pastry chef who recently opened her own chocolate shop, ChocoLee, in the South End. The warmish chocolate cake ($10), rich but nongooey, wasn’t overwhelming, and was well complemented by a puddle of salty caramel sauce and honey-vanilla gelato. Pearson makes absolutely fresh little cake doughnuts ($9) that are far too good (and filling) to wait till dessert for. And her variation on baked Alaska—chocolate-hazelnut and vanilla semifreddos served over a round of chocolate cake and topped with a dome of spiky, marshmallowy meringue ($10)—is a showpiece. It sure pleased me: big, simple, and good, like so much at this very big new restaurant.