Southern Med spark peps up a South End trattoria
by Robert Nadeau
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
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
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
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
The Dining Out archive