Dining Out: The Right Direction

Via Matta
The Heritage on the Garden
79 Park Plaza, Boston
Chef: Luis Morales

All the elements of a dream Italian restaurant are in place at Via Matta. There are cooks who have lived la bella vita in Italy, sent there by America's most savvy Italy mavens to the tables of grandmothers and the sides of ambitious young chefs. There's a management team that lifted Boston restaurant standards and made Radius a high-end national dining destination in the process. After accomplishing that feat, they loosened their collars and decided to serve the kind of food they'd give anyone who came over to their own houses.

But there's a hitch. A team that succeeds with such force rarely trusts itself to do something truly different. Witness Osteria del Circo, the “family trattoria” launched six years ago in midtown Manhattan by the three sons of Sirio Maccioni, owner of Le Cirque, with supposedly rustic Italian cooking supervised by their mother. By the time it opened, the restaurant was a multimillion-dollar extravaganza designed by Adam Tihany with a circus theme, and managed super smoothly by the handsome and perfectly groomed Maccioni boys.

Via Matta is something of a hybrid, too. It has far simpler and more straightforward food than Radius, and purposely spare décor. But it's also more studied than the places in Milan and Rome it wants to emulate — places that effortlessly transform into the casual restaurant everyone gravitates toward at all hours. I bet Via Matta will get there, given the sheer talent of its creators. For now, it's still waiting for that effortless transformation.

It isn't waiting for celebs or local gentry, that's for sure. A partner in both restaurants, Michael Schlow is a big Boston star, and when Via Matta opened in June, the seemingly countless members of his well-heeled local fan club didn't hesitate to head for the former Pignoli across from the Park Plaza Hotel. The cooks in the big downstairs kitchen are still getting over the all-evening company of Mick Jagger at the huge, convivial chef's table, which has replaced Pignoli's very corporate private dining room. It was the second Jagger dinner there.

You don't have to be a Radius regular or a rock star to be treated nicely, though it helps. Via Matta is independent of Radius and has its own staff. But on each of my four visits I saw key members of the Radius team making sure their people were being taken care of. Most of my guests received a warm welcome when they arrived, but the service became more attentive once I joined them because I was recognized each time — as always, a mixed blessing.

I would complain about waiters not listening to specific requests I made, especially about timing. But that would be unfair, and not only because they might have been flustered or because my requests were always both insistent and unconventional. It was also hard for them to hear me, even when they leaned into the table until our ties were practically touching.

The acoustics are odd: impossible inside by the windows, yet perfectly reasonable along the back wall even when there's a crowd. And at lunch there's seldom a problem. The unevenness reflects the design of the room. Pignoli's design was by the aforementioned extravaganza-loving Adam Tihany, and even if its opulent use of wood paneling and hanging lighted zeppelins reflected late-'80s excess, I miss it. I enjoyed the luxury and beautiful surfaces. The Via Matta team (particularly Christopher Myers, a partner with a keen interest in design) wanted a look, Schlow told me, that suggests a place where every choice was made with more care than money. An admirable concept. But the huge, open, irregular rectangle with plain white walls (hung with framed poster-sized art that looks to be the set of a whimsical opera at La Scala), equally hard-surfaced ceiling, plain wooden tables, and no carpet mean a room where noise levels escalate into deafening hot spots.

The food is spare, too: fresh ingredients, with nothing too elaborate. It's a great way to eat, and a way Bostonians have occasionally had the pleasure of experiencing outside its native Italy (if very seldom in the North End): at the ever-reliable, ever-simple Ristorante Toscano, which recently celebrated its 20th anniversary in the heart of Beacon Hill under the sure hand of native Florentine Vinicio Paoli; in Barbara Lynch's fantastic pastas, first at Galleria Italiana and now at No. 9 Park; and at Centro under Rene Michelena and sometimes still, depending on who's cooking. Schlow made his Boston reputation at Café Louis, where his immediate authority and respectful innovation on classical Italian models wowed Boston diners; at Radius he incorporated French expertise and refinement into a personalized cuisine.

If anything, the first menu at Via Matta was too schematic. I couldn't help wishing for more pastas, while some of my guests wished for more range within the secondi, which stick to the Italian idea of being one main piece of meat or fish without a dozen other things on the plate. (Ambitious young Boston chefs: Use this as your model.) But within a limited frame there's room for any good cook to shine, and Luis Morales, the chef at Via Matta and former sous-chef at Radius, is a good cook. Over the course of my four visits I watched several dishes become brighter and clearer — like a new TV screen whose adjustments you finally get right and think, Ah, this was worth it.

Morales's truest affinity is for vegetables, and what could be more Italian than that? He grew up with his mother's Costa Rican heritage and the Italian-American community of East Boston all around him, he told me, and found real love at tables in Italy. He shows that love in the primi, particularly the antipasto di magro ($10), or daily selection of fresh vegetables. This is a cornucopia around a big plate, with a superb caponata, unctuous but not falling apart, each vegetable cooked long; red onions lightly pickled in a sweet red-wine vinegar marinade; and fresh shaved zucchini and mint salad. It's easy to make a meal of this, with the airy yet substantial Iggy's bread and a fruity red wine like the Rosa del Golfo ($35) from Puglia — heel of the Italian boot and also home to Italy's most intensely flavored vegetables.

I'll wait for more pastas with a sharper focus. The first offerings were Italian in description but less so on the plate. Spaghetti aglio e olio ($16), for instance, that completely simple, unred oil and garlic sauce, here looks and tastes like a garlicky marinara because of the addition of tomato sauce. Anyone who loves garlic and plain tomato sauce with spaghetti will be pleased, but it falls between two stools. The penne with tomatoes, basil, eggplant, and buffalo mozzarella ($17) was gloppy and lukewarm when we first ordered it, the sauce a brownish blur, the flavors indistinct. Ten days or so later, the colors were fresh, the sauce coating restrained, and it was warm — practically another dish, and it tasted like Italy. As with the vivid red and parsley-flecked caponata and the magenta red-onion pickle, the colors and flavors came truer with each rendition.

The secondi didn't show similar leaps ahead, but I'll give them time. The most successful I tried was the Rhode Island fluke baked in paper with fennel, lemon, and black summer truffles ($25), the paper releasing fresh aromas as the expert waiter snipped it open before a delighted guest. Fluke is a local fish that hasn't quite caught on and should, given its texture (meatier than cod) and distinctive flavor. Some of the side dishes seemed overcooked and underinspired, especially one of my favorites, peperonata — sweet red and yellow peppers with olive oil and a tiny bit of tomato. This relies on perfect ingredients bursting with flavor, which was lacking. The hefty Tuscan steak ($42) is a worthy attempt to match the tenderness of Tuscan Chianina and could easily serve two.

When Morales finds a fine local farm and decides to highlight the best it's got, the results last in memory. A case in point: perfect blackberries on a crostata ($9). Even if I found the square of pastry brittle and dry rather than the usual lemon-scented cookielike crust you get in Italy, those berries were fabulous. Other desserts show less sure conception and middling results, like the trio of semifreddi ($9), frozen hard on all three orderings — a cardinal error in what is supposed to be a silken, mousselike dessert. The only reliable choice was a pretty disk of espresso-soaked chocolate cake layered with zabaglione and chocolate cream and dusted with dark cake crumbs ($9).

Then again, Tuscans don't care much about desserts, so the indifferent quality could charitably be viewed as yet more true Italian spirit. Via Matta is off to a running start — the idea is right, the team, able to deliver on it. Once the staff gets used to the acoustic peculiarities of the room, timing glitches will fade and the kitchen will become more consistent. Then we'll be tooling down Via Matta for a long time.