[sidebar] July 3 - 10, 1997
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Rabia's Ristorante

A North End restaurant with a flair for seafood makes the most of summer

by Robert Nadeau

73 Salem Street (North End), Boston; 227-6637
Open daily, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
AE, Di, MC, Visa
Beer and wine
Sidewalk-level access

In the astonishing explosion of North End dining in the last three years, even lesser-known resturants have played a role. Rabia's, without attracting a lot of critical attention, has developed a seasonal seafood menu on top of its typical list of pastas, soups, and salads. It's no longer an inexpensive restaurant if you take advantage of these seafood specials, but it's also not an ordinary or old-fashioned North End restaurant. There is a real enthusiasm on these platters that makes for special dinners, and it's generating a certain buzz -- even talk of expanding into a second location on Hanover Street in the fall.

Though most of the excitement is about the specials, listed on a sandwich board on the sidewalk, the other food is of consistently high quality as well. It starts with the complimentary appetizers: a platter of black and green Sicilian olives and a saucer of fruity virgin olive oil with fresh basil and dried oregano (the dipping bread, unfortunately, is ordinary Italian white bread, without a lot of texture).

The special appetizer one night was a couple of soft-shell crabs ($14), and they were fabulous. Rabia's chef got the most from these sometimes flavorless shellfish with a subtle addition of cumin to the coating flour and a fine, crispy, dry-surfaced deep-frying. A drizzle of spiced mayonnaise and a bed of grilled romaine lettuce made this a world-class dish.

An antipasto di mare ($13) wisely applied different cooking techniques to a variety of mild-tasting seafoods -- grilling shrimp and scallops, searing squid rings, and roasting cherrystone clams and mussels to concentrate their flavor. This wealth of seafood was distributed among grilled zucchini, mixed greens, and artichoke hearts. On a hot night, one could treat this as an entree. A more conventional insalata di funghi ($6) contrasted the slight bitterness of oyster mushrooms with balls of fresh mozzarella, very decent tomatoes, and a vinaigrette with fresh lemon and excellent olive oil.

An entree of yellowfin tuna steak ($24.95) was presented in a ridiculous vertical form that looked like a German military helmet. The steak itself was more than an inch thick, and it was set on a base of vinegary potato salad, with a layer of crab-avocado salsa on top and a brush of chives sticking up another six or eight inches. As silly as this looked, all the components had lots of flavor and went well together. The tuna was stylishly seared outside, rare inside -- what the Japanese call tataki. This gives the fish both a cooked-meat flavor and a peppery, provocative raw-fish quality that is very pleasing. The salsa element was just a slight transposition of guacamole toward the key of seafood.

Mixed-seafood stews are difficult to get right, but all three that we tried were impressive: almost all the different kinds of seafood came to the table correctly cooked, and in sauces or broths that were more than the sum of the parts. The most elaborate was a special frutti di mare ($27.95) with New England and New Zealand mussels, squid, a whole lobster, roe scallops in the shell, and sea scallops -- all served over capellini, with a peppery lemon sauce. Some untraditional vegetables amid the pasta -- snow peas, carrots, and red bell peppers -- added a superb variation of texture. The local mussels were plump and delicious, especially for the beginning of their spawning season, and the crucial lobster was sweet and fresh. The ultra-thin spaghetti picked up a lot of the relatively subtle sauce. This one delivered everything you can ask of such dishes, which are less about fine dining than about a sense of excess and having fun.

The richest flavor on the table developed in a main-menu risotto alla pescadora ($19). Although the seafood selection was more limited than in the stews, the key mussels, sea scallops, squid, clams, and shrimp were in there -- allying with garlic, butter, and some well-cooked-in wine to sauce a risotto chewier than I make, but still quite enjoyable.

I also liked the menu's idea of zuppa del pescadore ($25), which is clearly based on bouillabaisse, with a buttery tomato sauce just lightly complicated with saffron and garlic. This dish includes only half a lobster, and no starch. But the seafood flavor is pervasive, and the bread is ideal with a sauce of this kind.

The wine list at Rabia's is expensive but well-selected, primarily from Italian and Californian bottles. At these prices ($16 to $35, with only a few wines by the glass), the list ought to mention the vintage years. Since it doesn't, be sure to query the waiter -- the most serious Tuscan reds need up to six or eight years to mature. We tried a Tuscan white, a Pio Cesare chardonnay ($26) that turned out to be a 1995. That may be an awkward, in-between age for this bottle, which still had a spritzy acidity but had developed almost no fruity aroma or the vanilla overtones that Californians get from using new oak barrels. Austere whites are the older style in much of Italy, but this one probably needs more bottle time before doing battle with seafood stews.

Dessert, often the weak course in the North End, is a strong point at Rabia's. The tiramisú ($7) is one of the best around, playing an especially concentrated layer of coffee-flavored ladyfingers against a creamy topping. A chocolate mousse tart ($7) was a thin slice, but powerful enough in the all-important chocolate category. Like all the desserts, it was served on an oversized platter with decorative patterns of mango and raspberry purées. Coconut sorbet ($8), cutely served in a coconut shell, achieved a pure, refreshing flavor, without the heavy or waxy quality that can afflict coconut ice cream. The only weak item was a fruit tart ($7) built on a biscuit crust that could have been fresher.

Service at Rabia's was excellent without being obtrusive. The room is small, and somewhat open to the street and the kitchen, but not excessively noisy. Personally, I would not add background music -- either the flamenco-style singing of our early courses or the honking alto sax and traditional jazz of mid evening -- but the choices at least avoided stereotype. The décor is done in Tuscan yellow -- textured on one wall, a seemingly unfinished monochrome lemon-yellow on the other -- with paintings evoking some kind of Renaissance Maxfield Parrish.

We tested Rabia's at the high end, and it passed with flying colors: it falls short of the very best restaurants only in the lack of elaborate garnishes. But it's not just for the biggest nights out. Though the specials serve well on such occasions, the moderately priced pasta and salad selections make this a useful restaurant for ordinary lunches and dinners as well.

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