Dining Out: Italian Renaissance
Umbria is an unlikely place for a very pure sort of Italian cuisine. I don’t mean the region, of course—the “green heart of Italy” that boasts much of the best food of its neighbors Tuscany and Rome. Umbria is one of several regions where everyone who is fixated on vacationing in Tuscany should go instead. The food is blunt and direct, like Tuscan food, but with some pepper and spice from the south, better pasta from the east (some of the world’s best pasta, either eggy and fresh or dried and wheaty, is made in a neighboring region, the Marches), and lots of meat.
Meat is, in fact, a defining characteristic of Umbrian food, and it takes center stage at the new restaurant. The unlikely location is in the middle of the Financial District, where until recently the casual restaurant and nightclub Trattoria Il Panino & Club Level took up five floors of the building. The nightclub is still swinging, but the ground floor is now a far more ambitious restaurant, with a pleasant dining area intermittently buffeted by young people ready to go upstairs beyond the velvet rope. At the back is a warm, open kitchen, a kitchen where respect for ingredients is unusually high.
It helps to have an owner with a taste for quality (Frank De Pasquale, who made Enoteca Bricco and Il Panino North End successes) and an Italian-born-and-trained chef who knows both quality and Boston. Marisa Iocco trained in Italy’s best-known chef’s school, in Villa Santa Maria, and, working with her partner Rita D’Angelo, she has made several Boston restaurants stand out: Galleria Italiana, La Bettola, and now Bricco, on Hanover Street, where the two women preside over a simple and appealing Italian menu.
Umbria isn’t rigidly focused on authenticity. It takes inspiration from the hearty appeal of the region’s food and makes richly satisfying dishes that clearly honor the main ingredients. Meat turns up in a great many dishes, usually in a typically Italian way: as a supporting player, but one that sets the scene. One example is white polenta with crispy “veal bites” and Orvieto-wine tomato ragu ($13), a terra cotta casserole of nuggets of meat from boned veal ribs, braised and sautéed in extra virgin olive oil (which Iocco proudly told me she uses exclusively in her kitchen). The meat in this case was a bit bland and even had some of the texture created by reheating. But the tomato sauce, fortified with the moderately fruity, famous white wine from the tourist-filled cathedral town of Orvieto, was sharply flavored and memorable, anchored by subtle meat juices.
That meaty anchoring is explicit in several pasta dishes, most notably basil fettucelle in amatriciana sauce ($17), a Roman specialty. This famous oniony, porky sauce, made piquant with salty pecorino Romano cheese and given a red pepper kick, is only as good as the pork. Here, the pork was some of the best I’ve had in months—months, as it happens, of tasting organic pork from rare breeds. Iocco told me she buys meat of the favorite rare breed, Berkshire, raised in the Midwest but named Kurobuta by the Japanese who have tried to give Berkshire pork the same cachet as Kobe beef. It certainly tastes better and juicier than other pork, and it gave the pasta sauce a sweet richness that only the best pork can bring.
Iocco makes her own pasta in an old machine that turns out surprisingly good fresh noodles. The machine requires a dry dough, and so the texture is almost like store-bought pasta—a better and sturdier foil to the rich and densely meaty sauce. Amatriciana , for instance, is typically served with spaghetti, but Iocco serves it with wide fresh noodles.
That amatriciana and gnocchi alla norcina (“Norcia” evokes the word “butcher” in Italian and is the name of an Umbrian town whose butchers were the most renowned in the country) had the best balance of meat to fat to pasta. The norcina combination of gnocchi and roasted pork sausage ($19), along with a cream of mountain-cheese fontina, was almost overpoweringly rich. Sausage, after all, isn’t particularly lean. The red pepper in the homemade gnocchi, and the accents of diced apple and sage, saved it. The gnocchi were pleasantly chewy and stood up to the sausage, which was worthy of its namesake.
The balance went overboard, though, in cannelloni with braised beef short ribs, caramelized onions, smoked scamorza cheese, and wild mushrooms ($28). This was really a main course of short ribs, with the cannelloni a rather leathery gesture toward pasta—browned a bit too long, and with a lot of cheese besides. Then again, the short ribs were awfully good. As long as you think of this as a meat entrée, you’ll be pleased.
There are plenty of full-fledged meat courses to go for, of course, and I’d head straight for the veal chop, which at $34 is actually reasonable by Boston standards these days. Iocco sears it in an iron pan—standard Italian practice—and serves it the way Italians would when honoring an important guest: straight up and succulent, with a small square of something else, in this case a rich mushroom bread pudding. The lamb scottadito ($28) was a slight disappointment. The grilled lamb chops, peppery and nicely blackened with soft, strong-flavored meat within, were like filet mignons with better and more authoritative flavor. But the bones were frenched—a scandal. Frenching means trimming them to a dainty and all-too-clean T, rather than leaving on all the wonderful fatty bits that give the dish its moniker, which means “burnt fingers.” Make this dish less polite and it will live up to its name.
I’ve concentrated on meat, but vegetarians can be content with, say, a small wild mushroom pie with caramelized Gorgonzola ($15), served beside a roasted red pepper so good it was, well, meaty; or fusilli in a wild mushroom sauce with truffles, olives and pecorino ($19), a substantial casserole with the deep flavors that the kitchen’s brick oven imparts; or salmon and cod main courses (not as good or focused as the meat main courses). The bread is terrific, made in the restaurant and with an Italian lightness and chewiness and real flavor.
The desserts will make anyone happy. Lee Napoli, one of this city’s most accomplished pastry chefs, has been recruited to supply them, and her low chocolate hazelnut cake will keep any chocolate lover happy. I was more than content with her superior biscotti and vanilla ice cream and happy just to see her return.
I’m glad to see a few of Boston’s Italian treasures enjoying themselves—and bringing some real Italy downtown.