The Boston Phoenix
September 21 - 28, 2000

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Southern Med spark peps up a South End trattoria

by Robert Nadeau

431 Columbus Avenue (South End), Boston
Open Sun-Thurs, 5-10 p.m.; Fri and Sat, 5-11 p.m.
No credit cards
Beer and wine
No smoking
(617) 536-5723
Sidewalk-level access

It's six o'clock on a Friday evening at the corner of Dartmouth and Columbus. The air is filled with the chirping of cell phones as young people leave work and flock to the bars. Two blocks down Columbus, Giacomo's is nearly empty. Is this a bad sign? The menu lists familiar Italian specialties. Is that all there is? I had heard that the South End branch of Giacomo's (the other branch is in the North End) had the benefit of some consultation from Lotfi Saibbi, a master chef of the Southern Mediterranean whose North African bistro in Brookline, Felucca, was one of my all-time favorites.

The empty room fills by 7:30, so it was only a sign of summer. And the Column A/Column B permutations of seafood, pasta, and sauces aren't all there is to the menu. Daily specials and unusually attractive desserts are the Lotfi-isms here, although the Italian dishes are also executed with élan. We knew that as soon as a basket of real Tuscan bread hit the table, and we poured out a little real virgin olive oil for a quick dip. A caprese salad ($8) had fine fresh mozzarella and basil, and tasty summer tomatoes, along with a central salad-within-a-salad of sliced red peppers, mixed olives . . . say, is that a dried Moroccan olive in the mix? Lotfi, are you in there, buddy?

Well, there was no doubt about the special appetizer of shrimp and crab cakes ($10). These exquisite patties of fried seafood sat in a pool of salsa with a mustard flavor, like rémoulade sauce without the sauce part. This is not Italo-American cheffery.

Neither was another special of grilled wahoo ($22), although grilled seafood is a feature. Someone gets a beautiful grill pattern on the wahoo steak, and someone knows enough to serve it rare for maximum flavor in what can be a tough piece of game fish. But someone really special decided to put the wahoo steak and a couple of toasts on top of a sweet, fresh lobster chowder that would knock Jasper White's socks off. One big edge is that an Italian restaurant already has pancetta (fresh bacon), an excellent chowder flavoring.

The seafood-pasta-sauce permutations work like this: you can have mussels, calamari, or both; shrimp, scallops, clams, and mussels; shrimp and scallops; or all five. You can have them over linguine with pesto, fra diavolo, scampi, or "red" sauce; or with Giacomo's sauce, which is described as a lobster-based red sauce with some béchamel.

Steady readers know this column tries to cover everything, so they will not be surprised that we had the zuppa di pesce for two ($39.95), which features a whole lobster, all five of the other shellfish, the linguine, and Giacomo's sauce. I may get out-reported, I may get out-written, but no new kid on the butcher block is going to out-eat Robert Nadeau. And what did we learn? Giacomo's sauce is an excellent tomato sauce with a little creaminess from the béchamel and a little sharpness from the lobster broth, and even a bit of the pepperiness of the fra diavolo, but nicely balanced all around. The seafood is beautifully arranged without getting overdone. The lobster is split on top and circled by mussels, clams, impressively neat squid rings, and shrimp. It's a vast oval platter of food that you take in many helpings on to a dinner plate, with two big bowls for shells. Well, maybe the shrimp were a little overdone, but the squid rings weren't; the lobster and scallops were excellent, and the clams and mussels were superb. Apparently the only thing that really sits while the shellfish are arrayed is the linguine. Sensible diners will concentrate on favorite items and more modest quantities, but there's no evidence here that we gourmands will suffer as a result of our greed and inability to decide.

One does need some vegetables, and a side order of broccoli "rabb" ($4.95) adds roughage and garlic in savory fashion.

The wine list at Giacomo's is impressively priced, running as low as $12 per bottle. The $3 glass of the $12 pinot grigio tasted cheap and flashy, but the $4 glass of $12 chardonnay was solid. Both were large pours in small glasses. Birra Peroni ($3) is an interestingly bittersweet lager. I'd like to try a fresh draft of it, preferably in Italy.

There were only two desserts on our night, but both were outstanding, again contrary to the pattern found at many Italian restaurants. Ricotta pie ($7) was about twice as deep as the usual crusted pie, but with the lightness of ricotta and lemon peel instead of the density of American cheesecake. Alongside it "raspberry cheesecake ice cream" sounded like overkill, but tasted as light as sorbet. Grilled banana ($7) came with two ice creams, pistachio and chocolate, both richly flavored and obviously homemade. Both desserts were served on chilled platters with lots of chocolate graffiti.

The South End Giacomo's gets loud when full, since surfaces are smooth, the room is not that big, and the kitchen is semi-open. Service is good, and includes packing up the rest of one's zuppa di pesce for a few microwave lunches. The decor is standard trattoria, which means a lot of food goes on rather small tables, close together. If I were one of those young people on the corner at 6 p.m., I'd get my eating done early and take a good walk after dinner with my cell phone.

Robert Nadeau can be reached at

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