Look out, North End—Sagra’s regional Italian cuisine promises to lure diners across the Somerville line (the parking’s easier, too).
Le Marche is a region of Italy few people know but the one that might be closest to my heart. It’s near Veneto, the area around Venice, and borders both Tuscany and Umbria, while sharing characteristics and charms of all three (along with great art). Yet it’s a place apart, peaceful and green, untouched by the rush of tourism that has inevitably tainted the others. And of course, this being Italy, the food is very good.
“Le Marche” means “The Borders,” and this region surrounded by so many others has something in common with Somerville’s Davis Square, a spot that’s often overlooked in the Hub dining scene, overshadowed as it is by more-famous neighborhoods in Cambridge and Boston. Its standard-bearer has long been Gargoyles on the Square, which has won a loyal clientele with consistently imaginative, multicomponent New American dishes—admirable in an area better known for greasy spoons and coffeehouses than fine cuisine.
Sagra, new to the neighborhood, has the kind of ambition Davis Square hasn’t seen in years. With the help of the accomplished Marisa Iocco (who has a record of launching local stars, including Barbara Lynch and Rene Michelena), chef and co-owner Robert DeSimone is re-creating the cuisine of Le Marche. And because—like everyone who has spent any time there—a part of my heart is still in Le Marche, I went to Sagra in search of the region’s green serenity.
As it happens, serenity isn’t a house specialty at this sprawling bar-restaurant. The locals took to Sagra immediately, and it always seems crowded—a good sign. The warmth of the service makes up for its occasional cluelessness and for the lacquered black tables and leather furniture, a stylishly retro if hard-edged look left over from the previous occupant, Sauce. And the food makes up for noise. Some of it, at least.
Like many Italian restaurants—in both Boston and Italy itself—Sagra is at its finest with pastas but breaks its stride with main courses. I found DeSimone most persuasive with simple, vibrantly fresh tomato sauce and creamy, luscious ricotta, served along with sweet small tomatoes—mainstays that make Italian life worth living. The ricotta comes herbed in a discreet pool of fruity olive oil as a giveaway with bread, and in a wonderful lemony filling for ravioli ($12). Even if the pasta for the ravioli is too thick for my taste, the filling manages to be zingy without a trace of the lemon rind’s bitterness. And the eggplant involtini ($8), the best first course, has the elements of Sagra’s strong suits: herbed ricotta, fresh tomato sauce, and a thin coating of melted scamorza cheese as a bonus. It’s here that DeSimone demonstrates the genius of Italian cuisine, with its infinite variations on a few ingredients. Though these dishes are made of the same components, each feels and tastes utterly different.
The ravioli and eggplant could make any Italian-food lover happy any night, and the same goes for the gnocchi with duck ragu ($14), the gnocchi fat and chewy and with the real flavor of potatoes. Bits of duck meat give body and robustness to the sauce, and the hint of orange rind along with the oversize gnocchi mark this as being influenced by Abruzzi, the region south of Le Marche. (The dish, however, could have been warmer—something that was true across the board.)
I’m not sure that I would order again the strongest nod to Le Marche, a lasagna called vincisgrassi ($14). The meaning of the name is disputed, but a leading contender is “princely fat.” It certainly lives up to that: The pasta leaves are stained purple from the cooked-down red wine in the dough, and even though the meat comes from inexpensive cuts, the dish itself is very rich—overly rich, even—especially with melted butter sprinkled on the filling. It’s a good thing the portion is small. Also flawed was the tagliatelle with mushroom ragu ($13), which arrived completely congealed and cold and with wan flavor.
Still, DeSimone is accomplished in the basics: low and pillowy homemade focaccia dusted with salt and fragrant with fresh olive oil, the kind you get cut with scissors at Italian bakeries; citrusy marinated olives ($5), warmed in the oven (olives are a big deal in Le Marche). These and the excellent pasta add up to casual meals at the large, friendly bar. Pizza would be an ideal alternative as a quick dinner, too—the dough is properly resilient and marvelously blackened on the bottom—if it weren’t so salty. You can turn that to an advantage by making it a thirst whetter: Squares of the “Sagra” ($10), a white pizza with two kinds of cheese and papery shavings of all-fat pancetta, go great with beer. The fried plates, like the Le Marche signature meat-stuffed, plump green olives ($7) and the “Grand Melody” ($16), a version of fritto misto, displayed a deft hand. That said, it would have been nice if the server who recommended the assortment of “all our appetizers” had mentioned that everything was fried.
Most of the entrées featured hefty servings of unadorned, rather uninteresting meat—to be fair, perfectly consistent with what you’d find in Le Marche. At Sagra the value for large portions of decent-quality meat is as good as anywhere around Boston, particularly the agnello alla brace ($19), two kinds of lamb chop: the porterhouse and the familiar blade chop. This and the pork two ways ($17)—small ribs and handmade sausage—are the top choices for someone hankering for protein, and okay with getting big, plain pieces and little else. While the pan-fried salmon had the promised crisp skin and was a sizable portion for $18, the meat was fatty, mushy (a hazard of farmed salmon), and devoid of flavor; the accompanying chickpea stew, usually a great central-Italy standby, had dull, slightly undercooked peas. The unannounced shrimp, which the chef said he’d just decided to add to the stew, would ordinarily have seemed a nice extra if one of my guests hadn’t been allergic to shellfish. The best main course was the thin swordfish steak ($18) with a lively caponata, sweet with peppers, onions, and potatoes and a bit tart with wine vinegar (the caponata is also available as a side, for $3).
But in the end, the service glitches, the lackluster desserts—with the exception of a Nutella bread pudding ($7) with a hazelnut-praline semifreddo—and the unremarkable main dishes can all be excused for the strong pastas and gnocchi. Not to mention for the life and Italian flair Sagra is helping bring to a neighborhood that deserves it.