Restaurant Review: SRV in the South End

A flawed Venetian bacaro in the South End gets four stars. The cases for and against.
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Lamb-sausage maltagliati with favas and charred ramps. / Photograph by Jared Kuzia

I don’t know what they’re feeding the frilly baby arugula in the radish salad ($8) at SRV—the Coda group’s reliably sublime Venetian bacaro (small-plates-driven wine bar)—but it sure turns into a brute. Feisty and peppery, it may remind you, as it did me, that this criminally dumbed-down leafy green used to be sold in the herb aisle by the quarter ounce. It is pesto-strong.

Potent enough, in fact, to mix with milder varieties to soften its impact. Instead, co-chefs Michael Lombardi and Kevin O’Donnell crank up the bitterness even higher. First, with a trio of horseradish-y radishes—daikon, watermelon, breakfast—then grated actual horseradish. Pungent fermented-anchovy sauce, then astringent Asiago. Just when the palate starts to panic, salty, olive-oiled crisps of grilled bread swoop in to give all that exhilarating sharpness something smoky and glistening to ride. It is so well sourced. It is so impeccably balanced. It is dynamite.

It’s also barely the fifth-best dish you get in the “Arsenale,” a communal-dining whirlwind that may change my prejudice against prix fixe, which restaurants tend to treat as cheapskate-outreach programs: to fill early-bird seats or offload fading salmon onto the extra-well-done crowd. O’Donnell and Lombardi treat theirs like a portfolio of career bests.

This carnival of Venice-inspired fare starts with appealing bar snacks, such as olives fritte ($3): molten knobs of chopped Castelvetranos, pork sausage, and Montasio cheese. You get a sampling of stellar pastas—made not from scratch but from scratch-scratch, using house-milled flour. With any luck, one will be the casunziei ($15), traditional beet-filled half moons I usually find too sweet, but not here, thanks to the addition of smoked ricotta and dried nori—a nuanced stroke of genius that coaxed them back to savory. You might get gently smoked sea trout ($14), garnished with lentils and pickled turnips. Perhaps milk-braised, ash-dusted pork shoulder ($15) with mascarpone and spring onion. The one savory dud, mozzarella in carrozza ($3), had a tough crust that smacked of gluten overdevelopment from dredging too far in advance. On the other hand: fried cheese.

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Smoked sea trout with lentils. / Photograph by Jared Kuzia

The pacing was masterful, the sequence nimble, with portions big enough to leave a fat food critic stuffed (so to speak). Minus drinks but including dessert—which we’ll, uh, grapple with below—it cost $45. It would’ve been a bargain at twice that.

It was also a wistful reminder that for all we’ve gained (plenty!) with the small-plates revolution—the gastro-populist coup that turned mealtime into a meandering, improvisatory snacking session—there’s something to be said for leaving the programming to the pros. Not only is conversation easier when you’re not juggling menus and cutting up plated blobs into equitable sixths. But you also, I suspect, get more salads.

SRV at its best musters the pasta craft of Giulia, the flavor-palette “nowness” of Coppa, the ingredient sensibility of Erbaluce, and the uncanny knack for integrating bold flourishes—without coloring outside the lines—of Mario Batali’s top New York eateries (say, Del Posto, where Lombardi and O’Donnell crossed paths in the late aughts). No dish I tried hit that sweet spot more squarely than the maltagliati ($16), torn semolina handkerchiefs with spicy lamb-shoulder sausage. The sauce is made by deglazing the sausage-searing pan with pea-shell broth, and the whole mess gets tossed with grill-charred ramps, fava beans, grilled lemon peel, fava leaves, cilantro, pecorino, bread crumbs, and fiery harissa. (Ever eat the Xi’an lamb noodles at Gene’s? Same fix, via Venice.)

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The soaring industrial-chic space. / Photograph by Jared Kuzia

For a restaurant group that built its rep on neighborhood crowd-pleasers (Coda, the Salty Pig), SRV’s foodie-forward menu represents a bold departure. I can’t think of an Italian joint in town that offers fewer concessions to landlubbers. There are snails in the green-garlic risotto ($21). There’s enough squid ink in the glorious squid-ink risotto ($19) to obliterate any visual distinction among cuttlefish, preserved lemon, and rice. Even the steak option—sliced rib-eye ($16)—comes out nestled in a grayish puddle of silky anchovy fondue.

My favorite non-pasta dish, fegato alla veneziana ($11), retooled dowdy old liver and onions into a photogenic stunner, going full-peacock on the allium (red, white, roasted, fried) and blushing-pink on the organ meat, sans preemptive tableside consult. A refreshing reminder that chefs are artists, not your personal short-order cooks. As both a civilian eater and a critic, it’s a treat to encounter a menu that pitches this unapologetically to the top of the class: a rarity in this chicken-Parm-pandering town.

Desserts are uniformly weak. How bad? Of the nine people I brought in over three meals, nine said they wouldn’t order them again. I don’t know how closely you’re following the election, but these are not good polling numbers.

To be fair, Venice isn’t known for its dolci, which skew more “gently sweetened biscuit” than sugar bomb. But, man. They’re never this rote and joyless. The aggressive undersweetness of the tiramisu ($8), with its fridge-overchilled leakiness, and the Melba-toast austerity of the cookie plate ($8) felt almost…preachy. Sweets seekers requiring satisfaction beyond the solid roster of amaro digestifs should go the gelato ($9) route.

Service was knowledgeable, poised, and free of that judgy disdain other hot spots ooze. There wasn’t a server I met who couldn’t kibitz articulately about even the deepest reaches of the wine list—or quietly dispatch an expert to pick up the slack. It’s called reading the table, folks, and it’s all too rare. If I’m quibbling: Crowd control could use more finesse. An errant back heel across the invisible line separating the bar from the standing drink rails next to the neon-Tiffany-blue host stand can elicit brusque corrective action.

Full disclosure: I struggled mightily with how to star this one. For weeks, I lived like a political speechwriter, working on concession and victory drafts simultaneously. Can a four-star restaurant have one-star desserts? How many near-perfect scores do you need in the savory column to make up for a total whiff fest?

In the end, I decided, SRV’s got ’em. A wealth of savory 9s and 10s, seasoned service, precise drinks, the best prix fixe deal in town, and the bravery to forgo the usual pandering—in exchange for skippable desserts? I’ll take it.

So consider this one a bit of advocacy journalism: More of this, please.

★ ★ ★ ★

569 Columbus Ave., Boston, 617-536-9500, srvboston.com.

Menu Highlights

Smoked sea trout, $14
Lamb-sausage
maltagliati, $16
Calf’s liver and onions, $11

Critic Jolyon Helterman’s work has also appeared in Cook’s Illustrated, Hemispheres, and The Walrus.


★★★★ Extraordinary  |  ★★★ Generally Excellent  |  ★★ Good  |  ★ Fair  |  (No Stars) Poor