First Bite: Ristorante Damiano

By | Chowder |

1227557360Like most people I know, I don’t go to the North End seeking gastronomic epiphanies. I go for good food, okay wine, and great atmosphere. If I walk out with a full belly, a slight buzz, and sides that ache from laughing through dinner, I’m happy. (Something about the ever-present scent of garlic makes me easy to please.)

On a recent Friday, Hanover Street’s new Ristorante Damiano appeared to be just my speed: somewhat frenetic, very loud, and entirely fun. The small tables, sized to match the restaurant’s small plates, or piattini, are practically on top of one another, which, if you’re testy about personal space, can be a pain. But it also makes for fine entertainment, especially when the neighboring couple is talking frankly about their finances. Ours was.

Somewhat awkwardly, we were informed upon sitting that a two-item per person minimum was strictly enforced, which is odd. While the eatery understandably hesitates to let guests linger over a $10 tab, items range from a few bucks to almost $20, making the rule somewhat arbitrary. Still, it’s affordable. We pressed on.

The menu aims to please a crowd, with plates ranging from straightforward salads and pastas to seafood and grilled meats with a variety of sauces. A special of butternut squash risotto, served in a small copper pot, started things well. Though slightly undercooked, it was satisfying; fresh sage brightened the squash’s sweet, nutty flavor.

The panzanella (tomato bread salad), meanwhile, was less successful. The pile of dry, crouton-like bread squares, tomato chunks, and cucumber was more like the toppings of a garden salad than the glorious melding of bread, juicy tomatoes, oil, and herbs that typifies the dish.

Pesce pistachio, on the other hand, was a runaway hit. Offered with a choice of white tuna or salmon (we went for the former), the dish is surprisingly elegant, and caught us off guard. The perfectly seared tuna was made flavorful and colorful by bright blood orange and saffron sauces; the crunch of the pistachio crust against the delicate fish worked marvelously. A seared scallop special, presented similarly but with pomegranate in lieu of blood orange, did just as well.

And yet the simple aglio olio royale, or fresh pasta with garlic, olive oil, red pepper, and anchovy, faltered. The spaghetti was pleasantly al dente, but the undetectable anchovy and pepper led us to wonder if we’d ordered incorrectly. Worse, it’s an unremarkable preparation that, in this part of town, falls firmly into the “expected” category. So do offerings like veal valdostana and chicken piccata, which seem sadly misplaced next to dishes as smart as the tuna and scallops.

With a menu that straddles artful, fresh creations and tried-and-true Italian standbys meant for the masses, Damiano seems to suffer from a slight identity crisis. Other than the “small plates” tag and a desire to offer something for everyone, the cuisine lacks a discernible point of view. (Portion size is not a concept.) That’s not to say it’s not good; it’s just not cohesive.

The up side, though, is that it’s not hard to walk away happy. (An extensive wine list with lots of options at the $25, $30, and $35 price points helps.) Damiano does well where it needs to. Full belly? Check. Pleasant buzz? Check. Worth a return trip? Check plus.

  • thezak

    Where are there any bakeries, restaurants, eateries, grocers, or what mail order shops are there for bread made from chickpea flour already prepared?…

  • Lina W.

    I love Damiano. It is the best overall Italian experience in the city. I musty disagree STRONGLY about the aglio olio. My mother is Italian born and the aglio olio is perfect, and has been on three trips there. We order the royale, which has anchovy and hot pepper.
    Dont understand your identity crisis comment. Seems like the owner/chef wants to make sure tehre is something for everyone, from old standbys to some new things.
    I recommend this place to ALL of you.

    You will leave happy, for sure.

  • http://Bostonmagazine.com J.D.

    The best restaurant that I’ve tried in the North End for a long time. Perhaps the person performing the review was more in tune with Olive Garden or some other alleged Italian chain restaurant. The menu is very different from the usual American/Italian fare and the food was excellent. It reminds of a San Franciso hip restaurant with great food and good service without the pretentious atmosphere.

  • Ezra P.

    I agree strongly with J.D. The reviewer probably loves Olive Garden, carabba’s, apllebee’s etc.
    I have eaten here about 7 times and each and every time the food has been incredible. The risotto’s are all on the money. I had the garlic and oil royale and the subtle flavor of the anchovy and the hot peppers were perfect. Donna, maybe you’re in the wrong field.

  • Guido Pozzuoli

    JD and Ezra,

    Perhaps if you had been to Italy as often as this reviewer must have been, you’d know better. I have followed her recommendations several times and she knows il vero italiano. Buon Natale a tutti! – Guido

  • Lina W.

    Guido,

    I hope that is your real name, otherwise I would be terribly offended. Have you been to Damiano? If not, I feel you have no right to comment. I am Italian born and raised and this is by far one of the better Italian restaurants I have been to in the states. The owner/chef is Italian born FYI. Don’t see too may of those around anymore. Try it firt.