Restaurant Review: Giulia in Cambridge

The latest Italian newcomer favors authenticity over flash, mostly to great success.

By | Boston Magazine |
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Photographs by Anthony Tieuli

Boston has certainly never had a dearth of Italian restaurants. There are the North End red-sauce joints, of course, which are mostly Italian-American, and a handful of chef-owned places that happily offer inspired takes on the standards—Coppa, La Morra, and Il Casale. But there haven’t been many restaurants offering much in the way of real Italian—those simple, perfectly fresh dishes you’d find in a classic trattoria. That kind of food doesn’t seem to sell.

Enter chef Michael Pagliarini, who, along with his wife, Pamela Ralston, opened Giulia in the Porter Square area last December. Pagliarini has the background and the training to rethink authentic Italian cuisine: He grew up in northeastern Pennsylvania, where Italians, mostly from the far south, came to work in coal mines, and his own family heritage is Umbrian, above Rome and south of Tuscany. (His relatives farmed lentils, a crop the region is famous for.) Working under Grant Achatz at Trio, the Chicago-area predecessor of Alinea, educated Pagliarini in the avant-garde. His most recent full-time gig, as chef de cuisine of Via Matta, taught him Michael Schlow’s brand of gilded, greed-is-good fare, with butter sauces and lush presentations.

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Salmon with spring vegetables, $25

Now may be the moment when true simplicity can sell, and for his first restaurant, Pagliarini has chosen a more-rudimentary style—logical for a city and a time that demand local sourcing and ownership before innovation. It has a homemade look—exposed brick, reclaimed-white-oak timbers, and colorful table runners sewn by Ralston’s sister—and an earnest waitstaff, along with a chef who makes nightly rounds in the dining room. There’s a long bar on one side, with a cocktail program that’s a work in progress, a server told us, and a wine list that is, too. But the list is already far more nuanced than many Italian ones around town, with, for instance, the fruity but not overly sweet kerner, a silvaner-riesling hybrid from the abbey of Novacella, in the Trentino-Alto Adige region bordering Austria, and the always-reliable Livio Felluga pinot grigio, from the northeastern corner of Friuli (both $14 a glass).

The menu has high, true-to-the-source ambitions: to serve Italian food with a focus on the ingredients, as many of them local as possible. The simple, seasonal first courses, each with a fillip to add interest (say, an orange-and-anchovy vinaigrette over grilled escarole and radicchio, $10, or sheer, rich lardo draped atop puffy, spongy little disks of warm semolina, $5), stick to the modest, elevated but genuine theme. The same sentiment can be found in the desserts—including creamy, airy homemade gelatos like hazelnut affogato with chunks of chocolate shortbread, and pistachio with cherry compote and a pizzelle (both $6).

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Vermont quail with pork sausage, $28

Giulia’s calling card—the one it means to build its reputation on—is its pastas, which are rolled out daily on a custom-built high table that seats 12 for dinner. They’re all made in house, using a machine by the American manufacturer Arcobaleno that Pagliarini says he fell in love with when he helped Gabriel Frasca open Ventuno, on Nantucket. It has the bronze dies that create a rough, sauce-holding texture, and the results Pagliarini gets are more impressive than what other chefs achieve on similar machines. Farro casarecce ($16) is made with emmer, an older-variety wheat that’s usually too soft to give pasta any bite. Pagliarini’s casarecce was convincingly al dente, with a woodsy mushroom sauce that played up the natural nuttiness.

The filling in the giant veal-breast ravioli ($19) tasted like it was made in Italy, with its handchopped veal breast, sweetbreads, and Swiss chard. It was a Sunday-company dish, sophisticated and rich. Bucatini all’amatriciana ($17) featured a convincing rendering of the classic Roman sauce, with the addition of house-cured pancetta instead of the usual peppery guanciale. Orecchiette, a type of pasta from the southern Puglia region made without oil or yolks ($14), was a rare misstep, lacking the firmness it needed.

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Bucatini all’amatriciana, $17

When it came to the main courses, Pagliarini’s high ambitions—and his penchant for butter and elegant sauces—often gave dishes a haute-cuisine polish that defied the restaurant’s restrained philosophy and the relatively minimalist approach of his Italian forebears. Skate wing ($23) was dredged in flour and served with lots of brown butter, à la meunière. It was too soft and too salty from the Castelvetrano olives and capers (a traditional Italian touch), the fish tasting of just breading and butter. A warm beet-and-olive salad provided no textural relief. Pan-roasted cod with clam risotto ($28) was also mushy and salty, the well-made risotto as unmemorable as the fish. And yet a simple plate of farm-raised Maine salmon with asparagus, fennel, and mint in mushroom broth ($25) was incredibly fresh-tasting, the dish a distillation of spring.

The flavors clear up and stand out in the meat dishes, particularly in two main courses featuring sausage: lamb sausage with big white beans and chili-flecked broccoli rabe ($18); and pan-roasted quail, the deboned poultry certainly fine but peripheral beside a terrific coarse-ground pork sausage ($28). It was served with the lentils Pagliarini says will always be on the menu, to remind him of his past.

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Dessert offerings include pistachio gelato with cherry compote ($6).

What Giulia does best is translate local, seasonal goods into Italian, and offer good pasta and really superior sausage. The nightly crowds look entirely drawn from the neighborhood, and like they’ll be perfectly happy to keep the place to themselves, thank you very much. Giulia has the same sincerity Bondir did early on. Like Bondir, I think its loyalty will continue to grow—and for good reason.

Giulia, 1682 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-441-2800, giuliarestaurant.com.

 

Critic Corby Kummer—an editor at The Atlantic and author of The Pleasures of Slow Food—has been reviewing Greater Boston’s top restaurants in our pages since 1997.

Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/restaurants/article/2013/06/25/restaurant-review-giulia-cambridge/