At Moëca, a Talented Cambridge Restaurant Team Takes on Seafood
The neighborhood restaurant and raw bar is sibling to Giulia and is now open for dinner Wednesday through Saturday, with more nights to come.
For Michael Pagliarini, the Best of Boston-winning chef behind Italian gem Giulia, cooking is all about making the most of the ingredients you have. So launching his sustainably minded seafood restaurant and raw bar Moëca on August 3—at the peak of New England’s fishing season—has been nothing short of delightful. “We just live in the moment,” the chef says, “and the striped bass season going on right now is one of the best in recent memory.”
Pagliarini, who co-owns his restaurants with wife Pamela Ralston, has been cooking in Boston for 20 years and says local striped bass is an annual treat. Diners will see this prized summer fish on Moëca’s opening menu in two ways: raw, as a ceviche with stone-fruit aguachile and a crunchy, tapioca-based squid-ink “chicharron” for dipping, and also as a grilled entree accented with dried zucchini, tomato, and a seaweed vinaigrette.
As the menu and operations expand at the new restaurant, certain seasonal fish will be utilized even more. Chef de cuisine Brian Gianpoalo is envisioning, for example, a large-format dish of roasted striped-bass head presented with pancakes, herbs, and sauces so diners can make DIY bites at the table. “The menu is going to be alive and agile,” Pagliarini says. And adapting to what’s available doesn’t just apply to the choicest daily catch. “You can’t cherry-pick the top of the food chain and have that be a model of sustainability,” he adds.
That’s the ethos, in fact, behind the restaurant’s name. Moëca is an Italian colloquialism for a small, green crab that’s both a delicacy in Venice and an invasive nuisance for New England fisheries. These tiny, prolific creatures eat clams and oysters, compete with native crustaceans for food, and destroy local marsh habitats—and they are becoming even more abundant in the northeast as ocean temperatures rise.
A number of local non-profit and research organizations have been working for years with Boston-area seafood distributors and chefs to educate diners about these invasive green crabs and market them as a sustainable, flavorful shellfish option. Pagliarini got involved in 2019 with his team at Benedetto, a high-end restaurant at the Charles Hotel, collaborating with the Green Crab Project and Venetian fisherman Paolo Tagliapietro. “I remember receiving a 30-pound bag and opening it up to fierce, little, determined crabs that wanted to run all over the kitchen,” Pagliarini recalls. “Green crabs are not easy to work with,” he continues, noting they yield very little meat. The flavor is strong, however, so many local chefs are using them to infuse sauces, soups, stews, and even a whiskey. To start, Moëca is featuring green crabs in a savory, steamed-egg custard topped with wild-harvest shiitake mushrooms from Martha’s Vineyard, corn, and green onion.
It’s a fittingly refined dish for an ingredient that represents the business model. After Benedetto closed during the pandemic, “the idea for a seafood restaurant really took hold,” Pagliarini says. It was Tagliapietro, the fisherman, who suggested naming the new spot Moëca. “He told me, ‘I have great respect for these crabs. They’re resilient, adaptive, determined, and ready for any challenge.’ I thought, pulling out of the pandemic, that’s what we all need to be,” the chef says.
It’s actually been “rejuvenating” to design a new restaurant over the last year, Pagliarini says. For one thing, it provides new opportunities for team members like chef de cuisine Gianpoalo, who opened Giulia as sous chef 10 years ago, and Best of Boston-winning pastry chef Renae Connolly—Pagliarini’s first hire for Benedetto. Connolly now helms dessert programs at both Giulia and Moëca, overseeing gelato and ice cream production and more that’s headquartered in the new restaurant’s basement kitchen.
From talking through Moëca’s opening cocktail menu with beverage director Charlie Coykendall to waxing philosophically about hospitality with general manager Lauren Faria, Pagliarini says he’s been inspired by his managers’ creative processes. They’ve also hired a handful of new employees. “It’s exciting to see all of these people that have been with us for a long time get to the next level and become mentors,” Pagliarini says.
Seeing the restaurant itself come together was also energizing for the chef-owner. Moëca replaces a longtime neighborhood spot with an edgy color palette of watercolor grays, blues, and oxidized metals. Collaborating with the interior architects at Wolf in Sheep Design to reimagine what was most recently a pizza place called Luce, and formerly Shepard and Chez Henri, was a “dynamic” process. Woodworker Thom Scott built arches for the back bar, cantilevered shelves that divide the bar area from the dining room, and other custom elements. A wall of windows at the front of the restaurant, meanwhile, lets in plenty of natural light, which spills over the chairs, banquette seating, and corona marble-topped tables. Toward the back of the restaurant are cozier, more private booths, plus a large, wooden table which seats six to eight in front of the open kitchen.
No matter where you’re seated, though, “you feel really connected to the whole room,” Pagliarini observes. And when the sustainable, seasonal seafood lands on the table, you might feel part of something even bigger.
One Shepard St., Cambridge, moecarestaurant.com