Review: Terra at Eataly Boston
Basking in the pleasures of the char at Eataly’s Boston flagship.
The night I fell head over heels for Terra, the wood-fire-themed crown jewel of Eataly Boston—the Mario Batali–branded Italian-comestibles empire that last year annexed the old Pru food court—they undercooked my lamb chops. Now, just to be clear, I’m not talking some rose-pink-versus-hot-pink quibble requiring a spectrophotometer and color chart. I mean our platter of medium-rare agnello scottadito ($38) showed up rocking the ruby-red hue and translucent gleam of a wild-cherry lozenge.
Panicked, my date and I had a quick wordless consult. Refire or let it ride? Maybe it was the lateness of the hour, or the bewitching floral-berry intensity of the Lombardy red we’d splurged on. But a shrug and a glass bump later, we found ourselves barreling full speed ahead down the Pittsburgh-Rare highway.
It was the best possible decision.
The flavor of these burnished beauties was, in a word, sublime: complex and layered, despite barely a parsley sprig on the plate. A triumph of good sourcing (North Star Sheep Farm in Maine), but also of their overnight cure in a mix of salt, sugar, and dried fresh mint and lemon zest: a stroke of genius that jump-starts the magical transformation of the copious fat blobs into assertively salty, gently perfumed, all but rendered velvet. Every surface sported a just-shy-of-black crust, especially the leathery lengths of white-pocked meat spanning the luxuriously un-frenched ribs.
The dish was magnificent in its extremes, delightful in its near-miss transgression. You see, in this context, the cool, extra-rare interior provided just the foil needed for all of that rugged intensity. In food, as in any art, the sublime sometimes springs from knowing the rules and breaking them, deliberately or not.
Terra isn’t perfect, but man, is it good. It’s got the magic. The cooking across the board is vivid, gutsy, bursting with confidence; the platings, devoid of flourish to an almost braggadocious degree. That the Crocs-shod emperor himself won’t likely be plating your polpette should be no cause for alarm: Anyone who got to Batali’s Babbo in the Village during its early-aughts heyday will recognize its robust ethos and energy, thanks to the kindred-spirit talents of executive chef Jason Neve and chef de cuisine Dan Bazzinotti (most recently at Cambridge’s underrated Bisq), whose kitchen puts out an ambitious roster of Italian skewers, bruschette, small plates, handmade pastas, entrées, and platters meant for a crowd.
By kitchen, of course, I mean the snarling, oak-fueled inferno holding court in the middle of the potted-plant-festooned dining room, buttressed by all manner of crank-controlled racks and grates. The hulking live-fire pit is so central to what Terra is about—smoke and fire insert themselves into virtually every last morsel on the menu—that its presence verges on anthropomorphic: When not indiscriminately belching up plumes of fragrant smoke, the Beast enjoys enveloping sweet, chili-dusted Gulf shrimp skewers ($12) in a savory, gray-tinged perfume, and giving bruschette ($4) lavished with anchovy, radish, and butter a dazzling hit of charred-edged danger. (Also: quiet walks on the beach. Who knew?) During pasta courses, the Beast can often be found contributing haunting depth to linguine alle cozze ($19), tossed with smoked Chatham mussels, fire-crisped bread crumbs, and the intensely ashy residual shellfish liquor.
Pork, cider, apricot. Gnocchi, favas, speck. On my first visit to Terra, the spare dish descriptions read as either a stylized menu-writing tick or a fast pass to boredom. Wrong on both counts. The recipes have a genuine, elegant minimalism. A far cry from the lush, Romantic, multilayered orchestrations you find at Waypoint or Yvonne’s, Bazzinotti’s dishes are more, I dunno, an entire Vivaldi concerto stripped down to its essentials for a skeleton crew of viola, flute, and hulking blowtorch. It is a tough gambit to get just right. But for the most part, I think he succeeds.
Bunny, butter, beans: Pillowy, house-forged agnolotti ($21) filled with tender braised rabbit, mounted with luscious cultured butter, and offset with crunchy nubs of barely blanched Romanos reminded me of the homey pleasures of Russian pelmeni dumplings. Chicken, black pepper, chicory: The pollo al mattone ($23) was a triumph of crispy rendered skin and impeccable sourcing, not to mention weighty brickwork. Again and again, throughout the menu, confident minimalism prevails.
Don’t get me wrong. To the non-fans out there—and I’ve met some—I feel your pain. Does service falter during non-peak shifts? Sometimes. And yes, platings can cross the line from boldly unfussy to downright rough. Oh, and did I mention the time they undercooked my lamb?
But the flaws notwithstanding, I haven’t been this excited about a restaurant in a while. In an age when technology has given us CVap immersion circulators and other gadgets to ensure 124-degree medium-rare perfection every time, relying on something as quaintly lo-fi as live fire feels fresh and revelatory—like cueing up the odd live track after a binge of meticulous studio albums with their autotuned, polished-edge perfection.
Lamb, lemon, mint. The last time I ate at Terra, I brought in a first-timer and ordered up a feast of faves. The rabbit agnolotti were buttery pillows of perfection. The lamb meatballs ($10), a paean to airy, rosemary-scented intensity. For the grand finale, we ordered (yup) the agnello scottadito. It was…good. Same beautifully marbled chops, same beguiling floral flavors. But the crust was on the safe side of mahogany brown, and you could calibrate a spectrophotometer on the quarter-shade precision of that medium-rare. I felt a twinge of nostalgia for the lusty char, the quivering blues, the tempestuous unpredictability of our early days. The exhilarating extremes.
Here, of course, is a far better place for a responsible restaurant to be. So legit props to Bazzinotti and crew for whipping the Beast into submission. I couldn’t be happier for them. In a way.
★ ★ ★
Prudential Center, Boston, 617-807-7307, terra.eataly.com.
Lamb meatballs with rosemary ($10)
Bruschette with anchovies, butter, and radish ($4)
Rabbit agnolotti ($21)
Lamb scottadito ($38)
Critic Jolyon Helterman’s work has also appeared in Hemispheres, Cook’s Illustrated, and Coastal Living.
★★★★ Extraordinary | ★★★ Generally Excellent | ★★ Good | ★ Fair | (No Stars) Poor