Dining Out: Ciao Time
You won't get me to say that Boston now has a neighborhood restaurant where a non-Italian chef has somehow absorbed the essence of Italian cooking and serves very enjoyable, very fresh, reasonably priced food you could happily eat every night. Don't even try. The last time I said that, one of Boston's most gifted chefs, Rene Michelena, left Centro, in Central Square, a few months later. We haven't had an easy, reliable Italian bistro since. I have no intention of jinxing things this time.
Maybe I shouldn't worry. La Morra is in Brookline, after all, not Boston, on Route 9 in the two-story restaurant that for years housed Fajitas & 'Ritas. I've always liked this space, which seems like a fern bar from the '70s, with exposed brick, plenty of windows, and now framed Italian posters.
Chef Josh Ziskin's parents ran a frame store near the current La Morra. He chose restaurants as a career after college, thinking front-of-the-house. He would own and manage, not slave in the back. Later, while hanging out with his manager girlfriend, Jennifer, he found out it was more fun in the kitchen and started picking up shifts doing prep work.
During what turned out to be a six-month honeymoon, Ziskin got a job at a restaurant in Italy, in the wine-growing Piedmont hill town of La Morra. When he returned, he worked with Boston chefs who grasped true Italian cooking: Marisa Iocco and Rita D'Angelo, then at Galleria Italiana and happily now at Bricco in the North End, and Rene Michelena at La Bettola and Jimmy Burke's Tuscan Grill in Waltham. These are golden names—chefs who know how to turn out exemplary Italian food, blessed with simplicity and lots of respect for a few fresh ingredients.
Ziskin is still in a full Italian infatuation stage, trying out techniques he learned in Piedmont and dishes from several northern Italian regions going westward: Veneto for cicchetti, the now-fashionable tapas-like bar bites of Venice; Lombardy for mustard fruit, with spit-roasted rabbit; Tuscany for wood-grilled porterhouse; Sardinia for the big couscous-like pasta beads called fregola. What unites the regional variety is a dedication to flavor and a sheer enjoyment of cooking that comes through on nearly every plate.
Ziskin won me over on my first visit, when I ordered a cicchetti dish of fava beans lightly dressed with olive oil and salt and served with little cubes of pecorino cheese, the not-too-salty, creamy-textured sheep's-milk cheese ($3.50). Favas are the prep tyrants of the kitchen. Done right, as they are at La Morra, they are peeled not once but twice. Ziskin told me he sets out a case of favas (from Russo, in Watertown, where other cooks and I go to find them) for bartenders, waiters, and everyone else setting up the dining room to shell. This is a picture of Italy during fava season, when life halts for favas and everyone munches them with the first glass of wine.
Other cicchetti are equally appealing: savory Tuscan meatballs, mixed with bread crumbs, porcini, and prosciutto ($4) and my favorite, fat green Sicilian olives stuffed with puréed sun-dried tomato, in place of the usual beef, and deep-fried ($3). These are a variation on the usual meat-stuffed olives, breaded with both white flour and crunchy semolina. Cicchetti are served in truly bite-sized quantities, but the bites are so good that we ordered two little plates of stuffed olives and three tiny saucers of favas. The house giveaway is sliced homemade ciabatta with sparkling-fresh ricotta in place of the stodgy white-bean purée Italian restaurants have taken to offering.
Ziskin makes the pasta on a vintage Italian pasta machine he found in Medford, though so far the resulting pasta is good but not stellar, without the deep penetration of sauce into strand that I hope for. Tagliatelle with asparagus, arugula, and goat cheese ($9) seemed like four good ingredients that barely mingled; it lacked the complete coherence great pasta dishes have.
If there's a conceptual flaw in the food at La Morra, in fact, it's the separation of flavors that keeps the main dishes from really coming together. Consider creamy but light-textured mashed potatoes that taste of potato; peppery mustard greens sautéed just until they're crisp and fiery; fava beans cooked through and deeply flavored with mint—these side dishes, or contorni, are all worthy of being leading players and are offered separately in generous portions that are a terrific bargain ($4.25 each, and you won't need to order multiple plates). But when combined with perfectly fine roasted duck breast ($24), herb-crusted veal loin ($22.95), or pan-seared salmon on a special ($18.95), they still seem like side dishes jammed onto the same plate as a piece of protein. And the meat isn't as impressive as the vegetables: The sliced steak ($19.50) with a tomato sauce was tough and almost devoid of flavor.
To be fair, Italians barely adorn their meat or fish and serve side dishes literally in separate dishes. Ziskin does best at the main courses in which Italians do mix protein and vegetables: wood-grilled boar sausage with cannellini beans from Tuscany ($16.95) and pan-seared halibut with mussels, black olives, and tomatoes ($18.95). He would do better, I think, to narrow the menu. There are too many choices for a small restaurant to do well, and the toll is unexpected waits between courses and inconsistent flavor in the pastas and the main courses.
Wines are sharply focused, interesting, and well-priced, and the service is friendly. Desserts, also following the Italian model, are afterthoughts, though well-meaning. The noise, especially upstairs, can be distracting. But this is a restaurant that in a few months has built a very loyal neighborhood constituency. At a dinner downstairs, I watched diner after diner salute Susannah Galdston, the friendly and sunny manager, with a compliment on one dish or another that was even better than the last time. It's no wonder. All right, I said it. Here's hoping Ziskin stays in love with Italian food, Italian-style.