First Bite: Ristorante Damiano

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.