Dining Out: Erbaluce

Long-lost culinary vet Charles Draghi returns to the scene with a poetic homage to high-art northern Italian. But it's not for the timid of palate.

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tender potato gnocchi in a hearty boar ragù. (photograph by keller + keller)

Charles Draghi cooks the way he wants to. Most chefs who have their own restaurants do, of course. I mention this because it’s not the way I want him to cook. Draghi first came to my admiring attention more than 10 years ago, when he took over a hack-level North End restaurant, Marcuccio’s, and turned it into a destination where everything was made from scratch, informed by Draghi’s childhood summers in Piedmont, the wine and cheese stronghold of northwest Italy.

That gig ended, and so did another at a short-lived Back Bay restaurant, whose owners didn’t share Draghi’s vision of purity. Or something like that. Who can say why chef-owner marriages are seldom enduring, but they are, and that’s the reason so many chefs want to be owners. The road to independence was long for Draghi, who along the way worked in the back and front of various restaurants with Joan Johnson, his partner.

At last, they’ve arrived. Erbaluce, named for a rare Piedmont grape, is a cozy, bright, trim place near Park Square. Johnson, as general manager, couldn’t be nicer, or the waitstaff more helpful. The big bar is lively and comfortable, and has its own menu of simple Italian food—soups, pastas—to go with its unusual and moderately priced northern Italian wine list.

The menu in the main restaurant is less simple, and that’s where I wish Draghi would hew a bit more closely to the classics he knows and makes so well. He’s built herbs and spices—lots of them—into the DNA of practically every dish. Even in winter, you’ll find copious preserved herbs, some from Draghi’s Belmont garden, others from the woods of Ellington, the small northeastern Connecticut town where he attended high school. This is Draghi’s version of the kind of high-tech experimentation that many other chefs are using to make their mark. All great cuisines use herbs and spices, of course, and I certainly prefer lavender and lemon thyme to the xanthan gum and sodium borohydride of molecular gastronomy. But in their sheer profusion and unfamiliar combinations, Draghi’s use of spices sometimes recalls medieval more than modern Italy.

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Erbaluce chef-owner Charles Draghi, with business (and life) partner Joan Johnson, says many of his dishes were inspired by family favorites. (photograph by Keller + Keller)

Perhaps the picture will sharpen now that Draghi has assembled his “dream team,” a group of chefs he’s worked with through the years. Indeed, over the course of several meals, I could see things come into focus—including the most interesting fish and seafood I’ve seen and tasted in a long time.

The salmon Draghi sourced from a Canadian farm, for instance, tasted lean and wild and did not look artificially colored, almost a newsworthy event around these parts. A sautéed filet ($26) was served over pretty if out-of-season fresh favas and a reduced sugo with yellow-pepper juice; after I made short work of a generous portion, I was ready to devour a second. Draghi doesn’t shy from what other cooks consider scary rarities, mincing scungilli (Italian whelk) into a sauce for meaty farmed sturgeon roasted with garlic oil and saffron ($29). Dramatic razor clams ($11) came steamed in the shell with white wine, garlic, homegrown fennel seeds, leeks, and lemon zest. Sea scallops in their shells ($14) were big and beautiful, though the accompanying spicy mayonnaise, puffed under the broiler, masked their natural sweetness. Mussels steamed with rosemary and saffron ($9) struck the right flavor balance and were a remarkably good example of farmed seafood, which tends to be fatty and bland.

That balance is the exception, though. Too often rosemary, saffron, sage, or bay leaf domineers, as Draghi overemphasizes the bitter element common in Italian food. An herb and ricotta stuffing for the ravioli called pansoti ($19) was chokingly dry and bitter, maybe from the dandelion and escarole in the stuffing or maybe from a rancid walnut in the pesto. He also fails to make the case for some odd combinations, like sautéed sea bream ($24) with shrimp oil, hot peppers, tomato, and fresh peppermint.

sea scallops served in the shell and topped with spicy mayonnaise. (photograph by keller + keller)

But when he stays relatively restrained, Draghi cooks like no one else, with his deep understanding of Piedmontese, Friulian, and Tuscan idioms. Boar is a Tuscan and a Draghi favorite, both as an entrée ($36) and in a tomatoless ragù for terrifically light but substantial handmade potato gnocchi ($22), sauced with butternut squash and carrots and spiced with juniper and nutmeg. This is great traditional comfort food. So is his version of polenta ($9), cooked in broth and milk and layered with prosciutto fat before being baked, and roasted Piedmontese cauliflower ($9) layered with melted Taleggio and served with anchovies, raisins, and capers. Order it, whatever you think about cauliflower and anchovies.

Desserts, expertly made, also include citrus and herb essences, like orange-oil caramel folded into dark chocolate for a lush tart ($10), topped with whipped cream spiked with orange-flower water. The chocolate truffles that came with the check were flavored with Ellington-foraged wintergreen steeped in brandy. And pears poached with white wine, honey, and saffron and stuffed with mascarpone over a caramel sauce ($7) were a pretty, perfect ending to an herbaceous, spiced meal.

Draghi, in or out of the North End, is a local treasure Boston needs to support. Go and enjoy his vision as it comes into clearer focus.

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Wine-poached, mascarpone-stuffed pear in a pool of caramel. (photograph by keller + keller)


Seafood: Farmed sturgeon roasted with garlic oil and saffron ($29); sea scallops with spicy mayonnaise ($14); mussels steamed with rosemary and saffron ($9)

Entrées: Boar with mosto and lavender ($36); potato gnocchi with butternut squash and carrots ($22)

Desserts: Caramel and chocolate tart ($10); poached pears stuffed with mascarpone over caramel ($7)

Erbaluce, 69 Church St., Boston, 617-426-6969, erbaluce-boston.com

Critic Corby Kummer—an editor at The Atlantic and author of The Pleasures of Slow Food—has been reviewing the city’s leading restaurants in our pages since 1997.