Hits and misses in the North End
BY ROBERT NADEAU
The North End used to rely on home-style red-sauce palaces that delivered a lot of value and a sense of roots. There were always some expensive and luxurious places, but only in the ’90s did prices and expectations for red sauce rise, and by then an advance guard of chef-dominated bistros with more creative food, such as Mamma Maria, Alloro, and Pomodoro, had arrived. Bacco, with its airy second-floor dining room and lots of west-facing windows, feels caught between the two styles, as though the kitchen is tentative with the neighborhood classics but not fully empowered to go upscale. In two widely spaced visits, I hit enough successful dishes to make a good dinner for two, but also enough losers to discourage many casual diners. The owner is also a partner in Tapéo, the rather good Newbury Street tapas bar; with any luck, there will be some improvements after this review.
In the meantime, you can eat well at Bacco if you clip this paragraph, and especially if you like a lot of seafood. Start with the scallops pancetta ($8.95), a skewer of five mid-size scallops wrapped with Italian-style fresh bacon and broiled brilliantly. Yes, it’s rumaki, but some of the best ever. Served with a dipping bowl of fresh pesto and a salad of field greens, this starter actually makes a light meal for some people. Your main dish can be any of the seafood combinations or chicken verdicchio ($17.95). This was Felicia’s signature dish in the 1960s, when it was popular with Jacqueline Kennedy and Frank Sinatra. The combination of verdicchio (a dry white wine with a bitter aftertaste) and artichoke hearts (with their unusual sweetening properties) lifts the sauté of chicken and vegetables out of the ordinary. It worked then, and it works today, especially since Bacco’s kitchen keeps the chicken plump and tender. But you must not touch the side pasta, with its inedibly sweet tomato sauce, or the spell will be broken. Your dessert won’t be amazing, but it is a plus to have desserts on a North End menu. The coffee and cappuccino are excellent; you might even try the cheesecake, which isn’t the Italian-ricotta style, but it’s good.
Now, if you sit down without the above paragraph, you’ll start pleasantly with fresh scali bread but then be apt to lose focus. The caprese salad ($8.95) does a decent job sustaining the summer menu with greenhouse tomatoes, good fresh mozzarella, and fresh greenhouse basil. The bruschetta ($6.95) — which is becoming the Italian version of sports-bar nachos — is the same scali bread covered with grilled cheese, tomatoes treated with vinegar, and basil. There’s a lot of it, as with the budget version, described as "Bacco Bread" ($4.95), which adds oregano, red onion, and cucumbers to the topping.
The caesar salad ($6.95) is very large and served with dressing that has some garlic and tang, but it features croutons so big you may flash back to being 10 years old, out for a restaurant dinner. A sauté of artichokes and prosciutto ($8.95) includes lots of good ham, not enough artichoke hearts, and some red peppers, but too much sauce. On my first visit, back in May, I also tried a poorly fried calamari with marinara dipping sauce and an uninteresting antipasto. The fried squid ought to have improved by now, given that the owner’s other restaurant is a tapas bar. But you can understand why I told you to stick to the scallops pancetta.
With entrées, your best bet is seafood and pasta, since they are generous with the former, and the latter keeps that side-dish pasta off the table. A recent special of scallops, shrimp, and lobster scampi on angel-hair pasta ($29.95) had nine large scallops, four big shrimp, and numerous small lobster claws, all correctly cooked. The sauce lacked garlic-power and the thin pasta was done to mush, but it was a fine seafood dinner. I’d had similar luck with seafood risotto ($18.95) in May — beautifully handled squid and scallops, clever use of fennel bulb, but an un-risotto of long-grain rice made creamy with ... cream. The usual idea is to cook shorter-grain rice in such a way as to release a lot of starch to make a thicker creaminess. (Hurried chefs sometimes use rice flour, but you didn’t see it here.) Lasagna ($14.95) again dodges the side-dish pasta. The baked noodles are good, although our enormous slab had too much ricotta and not enough tomato sauce.
Sautés other than the chicken verdicchio are generous but not masterful. Veal marsala ($17.95) has a sweet, thick sauce, not quite up to the Chinese-style complexity that sweet-wine sauce can reach. The big issue, though, was giant diagonal slices of inch-thick zucchini that never cooked or absorbed any sauce at all. Chicken cacciatore ($15.95) uses the same giant zucchini, along with onions, peppers, tomatoes, and mushrooms, in a sauce that doesn’t quite come together. It’s supposed to be a quick dish for hungry and presumably unsuccessful hunters, men who don’t take the time to cook. But I think Italian hunters would cook their zucchini more, and leave the bones in their chicken pieces for flavor.
The only thing that was better in May was the service, from Danielle, whose not-quite-Italian accent turned out to be Romanian. The precision of her service suggested training in physics. In November we had two male servers, neither of whom knew who had ordered what. The desserts were listed as tiramisu, napoleon, and chocolate-mousse cake. We ordered all three ($6.50 each) and five spoons. We were served a dry chocolate cake (no mousse to it), tiramisu, and cheesecake (not a napoleon). The cheesecake, as described above, was the favorite. The tiramisu was cut fashionably tall, but its structure was achieved with thin cake layers and a lot of unflavored whipped cream to hold the shape. It looked better than it tasted.
Bacco’s wine list is almost all Italian, and fairly good. We had a bottle of the ’99 Chianti "Il Tasso" ($30) and it had some fruit and structure (the acidity and astringency that seem to sustain flavor and complement food). On the May visit, a glass of Chianti from Cantina Sociale ($7 glass/$28 bottle) was softer — without the structure, but fruity. A glass of ’99 Trentino merlot "La Vis" ($7/28) had more edge, and a nice note of raspberry — way ahead of most of the popular California merlots, in my book.
The upstairs dining room can get crowded, but high ceilings and a lot of windows help the feeling, if not the noise level. Background music ranged from Italian jazz samba to the ubiquitous flamenco. The red-stained-oak café tables are nice, and nicely set off by the pastiche paintings of plump nymphs in pastoral settings that have long been associated with this food.
Robert Nadeau can be reached at RobtNadeau@aol.comIssue Date: November 15 - 22, 2001
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