269 Newbury Street, Boston
Open MonĖFri, 11:30 a.m.Ė1 a.m., and SatĖSun, 11 a.m.Ė1 a.m.
AE, DC, Di, MC, Vi
Valet parking at night
Wheelchair access to outside tables, and via rear of building
The story about Croma is not very promising: the owners befriended a fellow who owns the hottest pizza parlor in Manchester, England, and then decided to import his concept and menu. The actual situation at Croma is very promising ó lots of seating inside and out at a moderately priced, short-menu Italian restaurant on Newbury Street. It is in fact the long-time location of the original Davioís, which is two floors just above and below street level, plus a lot of outdoor tables.
Where the story and the actual situation meet, things rather average out. It turns out that the British idea of a pizza parlor has a certain amount of actual travel to Italy built in ó thus thin-crust pizzas, Turinese bread sticks, and a lot of arugula. But of course, there are some British retentions, and they are more dubious: tandoori-chicken pizza, sticky toffee pudding, tomato soup in a bread bowl. Since Boston is such an Anglophile city, you may love one or two of these. (Iím fairly sure the tandoori-chicken pizza wonít work.) But you will definitely love walking right into a restaurant on Newbury Street for a quick bite, or a slower one, and walking away with some money left. And it can be a very good bite if you read carefully.
First of all, donít let the late Dr. Atkins scare you away from those breadsticks. They are just like the ones from Turin served all over Italy, and they are very nice. Thereís no breadbasket, but most of the food involves bread or pasta, so you will get carbs besides the breadsticks.
For example, the "Croma tomato basil soup" ($3.95) is optionally served in a bread bowl ($4.95). I didnít order this option, and was rewarded with a rich-enough tomato soup, with a hit of fresh basil. Bruschetta ($4.50) is, of course, bread topped with fresh tomato salad. It ought to be toast rubbed with garlic, but Croma has at least restored the flavor idea by using garlic bread and an impressive fresh tomato salad.
Baked mushrooms ($6.75) are real portobellos baked in lots of oil, the way porcini are in Italy, and set over arugula, as they would be in Italy. The arugula gets a little wilted and the flavor is a little richer and less sharp, and itís a very nice appetizer.
Peking-duck salad ($11.95) has the makings of a novelty hit. It isnít, of course, real Peking duck, which has a crisp skin. But itís good, meaty duck slices in a little too much hoisin sauce, so again it wilts a salad of arugula, mâche (an already gelatinous green), and cilantro. You also get four "dough balls," which seem like pizza-crust nuggets. More stodginess from the UK, I would think.
Actual pizzas are about 10 inches in diameter, with a fairly thin crust, only somewhat crisp despite an alleged 725-degree oven. They have a lot of moist toppings, which is the problem/opportunity. Stick with traditional toppings, and you should be fine. Pesto chicken ($12.75) is pretty good for a non-traditional pizza. It features a lot of pine nuts, a medium basil sauce, tomatoes, and white-meat chicken. Chicken tandoori ($11.95) is supposedly the most popular dish in Manchester. Itís served with limes to squeeze, like certain Mexican beers. Thereís a lot of tender chicken meat, but one flavoring too many, maybe a clash of the mint with the "tandoori tomato sauce." Maybe just the "tandoori tomato sauce" itself. You also get cashews, green peppers, onions, and mozzarella. So all the food groups are in there except caffeine, alcohol, and chocolate.
Since the ovens are running, the kitchen also has a line of baked Italian dishes, of which the seafood cannelloni ($13.50) is quite good, and will be even better in the winter. Itís mostly pasta wrappers and cheese sauce, but inside is lobster meat, sea scallops, and some small shrimp.
Croma has an interesting wine list, and some people will find it a useful wine bar with snacks. Iced tea ($4) is refilled and tastes brewed. Hot tea would appall anyone in Manchester. Youíre served hot water in a glass, and offered a choice of bags from a chest. Get the darned chest open, pick a bag, open the bag, get the tea in the water, hope it brews ...
Desserts, a weakness of Italian cuisine, are here Anglicized to good effect. Tiramisu ($5.50) is about what you get everywhere, and also in Italy, where it has replaced a North Italian imitation of trifle known, ironically, as "zuppa inglese." The featured item is hot "sticky toffee pudding" ($6.95/$7.75 with ice cream). Iím not mad for this, and also found it variable. My first visit it was hot, cakey, sticky with caramel syrup, and somewhat addictive. On my second try, it was cooler and harder to eat. Either way, itís incredibly sweet, and ice cream actually cuts the sweetness. Raspberry cheesecake ($5.95) is something I also saw in Italy, although this is in the line of German and English (and American) cheesecakes, rather than the lighter ricotta cakes of Sicily. Whatís interesting about it here is that the raspberry is swirled into the actual cake. It looks better, but probably would taste better as a thicker topping.
And, saving the best for last, chocolate-fudge cake ($5.95) is an ordinary slice of chocolate cake, perfectly moistened, and enriched with crème anglaise (a thin custard sauce), decorations of dark-chocolate sauce, and real whipped cream.
Cromaís outdoor tables mostly have umbrellas for shelter. Inside, the owners have opened the space and kept it light with blond wood, white tiles, and well-spaced tables. Servers are helpful and quick, although the crowds hadnít found Croma at the time of my visits. They will, because this is the kind of larger, simpler, reliable restaurant that Newbury Street needs.
Robert Nadeau can be reached at RobtNadeau@aol.com.