Miracle of Science, near MIT, isnít much. You can barely read the sign, and almost all it serves are skewers ó very, very good skewers. Somehow, with minimal décor and everything just so, it remains one of the most stylish and popular bars in Greater Boston. Now the same owners have come up with a Harvard Square pizza parlor. Again, this is not a very original concept, but they keep it down to the essential details, and get all those details right. On one level, itís just a pizza place. On another level, itís an amazing piece of minimalist performance art. Every restaurateur and chain operator in the United States is trying to find the right combination of smart (read: a little more expensive), casual (read: everybody comes in) dining, and these guys just have it. I canít even tell you what " it " is, but they have more of it than anyone. Cambridge 1 is beyond demographics. It is hot, cool, hep, hip, mod, kewl, and pomo all at once.
The menu barely fills a small piece of paper. It offers salads, pizzas in two sizes, one dessert, and a wine list. Like the Miracle of Science, the restaurant is full. At the old place, you seat yourself; at Cambridge 1, someone in jeans and a black shirt will eventually tell you where to sit and give you the menu. It has booths, everybody has booths. It has silent TVs tuned to two sports stations, everybody has that. It has an open kitchen, hardly a novelty.
Why is this place so good, or at least so convincing?
It might be the food. It actually might. The Bibb salad with grape tomatoes ($7) isnít particularly unusual, but the tomatoes are unusually good, and so is the lettuce ó with hints of cilantro in the mix of greens ó and the Dijon dressing. The iceberg wedge ($5) canít possibly be as good as it is. Itís just a big wedge of, you know, iceberg lettuce, the dull but crispy stuff of Middle American salad bars. But with a lively dressing purple with chopped shallots, itís a treat. Even the grilled-chicken salad ($8), mostly romaine to evoke the now-universal caesar salad, is quite effective.
The pizzas really are a cut above the rest. The key is an ultra-thin crust, so every bite is crunchy ó like iceberg lettuce, like junk food ó but with honest bakery flavor. Potato-fontina-rosemary, Number Five ($7/$13), may be the pizza of the year. The potatoes are thin slices of waxy, red new potatoes, loaded with enough rosemary to taste like sage, and just enough cheese to glue the flavor to your tongue. Darn, itís good.
Bolognese, Number Nine ($8/$15), features a serious version of Italian meat sauce, with tiny cubes of carrot and just enough tomato to hold it together. It is, in fact, such a thick sauce that it comes in little blobs on the pizza shell, spaced out with slices of tomato. The details, always the details, include a sprinkle of shredded scallions. You ate it here first. Baby arugula, Number Two ($7/$13), is the Yuppieís Choice, but we get better than we deserve ó two saladsí worth of excellent arugula, just wilted a little on the pizza shell. Reviewers always order the small-size pizzas, to taste more toppings. A small here is about three slices at your local, and with these thin-crusters, it seems like the perfect size.
The wine list is quite good, but also rather expensive. They have to make money somewhere, I suppose. Matteo Correggio Arneis 2000 ($9.50 glass/$35 bottle) is a North Italian white that takes full advantage of the miracles of modern winemaking science. Itís bone-dry, full of fruit, and may be the perfect wine with contempo pizza. On the soft-drink side, try San Benedetto peach ice tea ($3), bottled at an Italian spring, but apparently with American pizza in mind. The coffee is good, and now we get to the one dessert.
Toscaniniís tiramisu ice cream ($5). Thatís all you need to know, and all you ever need to know.
The ineluctably of-the-moment atmosphere is simplified and loud. Once again, a barely visible sign hangs outside. Large flowers sit high over the entryway. There are slate tables, a concrete floor, bare brick and cinder-block walls, big windows, and loud rock and jazz background music. The two bathrooms are not only unisex, they are unlabeled.
The meal is over, and I still cannot explain the mystique. You might end up sharing a table with strangers. (Thatís not it.) One TV had the Red Sox on FSNE, the other had the Phillies on ESPN. (Thatís not it.) Thereís actually no décor as such. (Thatís not it.) Some tables are so dark that people over 50 canít easily read the menu. (Thatís not it.) The staff seem like they enjoy their work, but not like they are parties to a secret joke. (Thatís not it, and they must not know what " it " is either, or they would start their own place.)
I still donít know, but it would be unethical for me to start my own place, so the owners of Cambridge 1 are entirely safe in e-mailing me the secret of their twice-proven mystique at the below address. I promise I will not tell their competitors, or even you readers.
Robert Nadeau can be reached at RobtNadeau@aol.com