Dining Out: Karen Akunowicz’s Fox & the Knife

One of Boston’s hottest chefs finally has a place to call her own. But does her Italian enoteca live up to the hype?

Fox & the Knife’s saffron-tinted spaghetti with clams. / Brian Samuels Photography

Chef Karen Akunowicz is no stranger to the high-stakes food world. She is a James Beard Award winner. She gained a national audience as a contestant on Top Chef in 2015, and then retained it as a recurring guest judge on the show. She co-authored a cookbook, Myers + Chang at Home, immortalizing recipes honed at the South End hot spot where she cooked for seven years—and eventually became a partner alongside its eponymous star restaurateurs, Christopher Myers and Joanne Chang. Yet as an entry point for exploring her first self-owned restaurant, I’m starting with a green salad. Stay with me.

The insalata verde ($9) at Fox & the Knife, Akunowicz’s new 80-seat Italian enoteca in South Boston, is exceptional. A jumble of Little Gem lettuces and peekaboo glimpses of rosy Castelfranco chicory unfurl on the plate like a single head ready for harvest. Three types of citrus juice and rind mingle in a punchy vinaigrette that’s assertive to the verge of acerbic without teetering off the edge. Its biting brightness mellows under a voluminous fur of breadcrumbs, crunchy and oily and furrowed by snows of Parmesan, the cheese as nutty and crystalline as the formaggio gods intended. The leaves are dressed perfectly, glazed gently to the inner ribs and hearts.

With this dish—the omnipresent, often-afterthought “green salad”—Akunowicz demonstrates a no-holds-barred exaltation of taste and texture while simultaneously leveraging restraint. It’s a damn good salad. And Fox & the Knife is a damn good restaurant.

Chef Karen Akunowicz in front of the restaurant’s signature “Stay Foxy” sign. / Brian Samuels Photography

Co-owned with her spouse, LJ Johnson, the enoteca signals Akunowicz’s return to a culinary point of origin: the year she spent as a young chef in Modena, Italy. There, in the Emilia-Romagna slab of the Boot, she learned to make pasta by hand. She absorbed cultural traditions such as aperitivo—those cool few evening hours dedicated to amari and little bites, like the fried chili chickpeas ($3) and feathery folds of prosciutto ($7) now infused into her restaurant’s modest though nuanced menu.

I’ll be transparent: I also spent a formative year as a young cook in Emilia-Romagna. I lived not in Modena, but 30 minutes south in Bologna, edifying an appetite that would take me from cooking in restaurants to writing about them. This is to say: Emilia-Romagna holds some of my most intimately learned soul food. That’s a tall order to fill. And Akunowicz does so exceedingly well—not by creating an exact replica of the cuisine, but by absorbing all of that Italian intel and refracting it within her own framework. The results tread a remarkable line between classicism and explicit ingenuity.

The tortelli di pastinaca ($24), for instance, a riff on Modena’s iconic tortelli di zucca, danced around bitterness and funk with textbook balance; fat purses of parsnip-filled pasta with walnut sauce were shingled with radicchio, Gorgonzola dolce, and a subtle cord of browned butter. Sturdy rounds of tigelle bread ($5), a cultural staple in a region known as “the breadbasket of Italy,” came with an untraditional swipe of tempered butter. (You know what? It was better this way.) Orbs of burrata ($14) were impossibly tender, hiding coyly under a shaggy, idiosyncratic coat of shredded chard, warm walnut vinaigrette, and fried and pickled shallots. Brussels sprouts ($7) sucking up sweet-sour agrodolce made me forget my current stance on the overused brassica. (Boston, enough.) Order the spaghetti con vongole ($20), tinted like sun-warmed terra cotta with saffron fronds; it’s among the best dishes in the city.

The bietola and burrata with warm walnut vinaigrette. / Brian Samuels Photography

As for the tagliatelle Bolognese ($25), Akunowicz’s version threads an ode to tradition with a lacy trim of originality, adding the depth of thyme leaves and a tingle of chili flake to the customary dish. It was both interesting and soul-satisfying. Entrées were less remarkable though utterly comforting, such as burnished, sumac-fringed brick chicken ($24) and spoon-tender duck ($28) over white beans colored crimson with ’nduja.

Actual qualms are few, and pretty petty. The panna cotta ($8)—the only dessert option beyond a (lovely, salty-meets-bittersweet) chocolate–olive oil torte ($8)—was overly firm, more Jell-O than custard. The grilled broccoli Caesar ($11) lacked the refreshing verve that Akunowicz otherwise wields with aplomb. But really, I just like it here. Especially when I returned to my bar seat one night to find that the bartender had quietly refilled the plate of grilled bread that came with the house-made ricotta ($6).

Akunowicz’s high-profile rep makes reservations at Fox currently among the most coveted in town. On one packed Saturday, the night hummed in a relaxed yet vibrant froth of aperitivo cocktails and broad bowls holding tumbles of house-made pasta. In the open kitchen, executive sous chef Molly Dwyer and sous chef Tessa Bristol freckled a molten hunk of bone-in lamb with mint gremolata ($29) and plated supple slabs of focaccia stuffed with Taleggio cheese ($12). Various apéritifs and amari fronted by general manager Alexandra Hayden—including the hopped, botanical-slicked Bully Boy Amaro ($12) from Roxbury—came out in cordial glasses, a welcome palate opener or close to a lingering meal.

On that busy Saturday evening—her kitchen appearing calm and content, though probably elbow-deep in the weeds—Akunowicz left the line to help walk dishes to waiting diners. She returned to a two-top promptly when the couple asked for another round of the Negroamaro, a dried-berry beauty of a red. Her clap of magenta hair made her easy to spot as she floated between the pass and the floor with the unmistakable air of someone at ease helming the ship.

Akunowicz is not seeking handshakes here. She is busing tables. There, beyond menu and décor, is the mark of an extraordinary chef.

★★★ 1/2

28 W. Broadway, Boston,

Menu Highlights

Insalata verde ($9), Zafferano 
con vongole ($20), Bietola 
and burrata 

★★★★ Extraordinary | ★★★ Generally Excellent | ★★ Good | ★ Fair |  (No Stars) Poor