Tuesday, March 13, 2012
North End: Lucia
On a trip to Venice I once took our tour guides were two young Venetians, a man and a woman, who knew every nook and cranny of their city. The young man, who could have easily passed as a runway model, spoke of how, even though he had his own apartment, he would go home every afternoon, where his Momma would have an elaborate lunch set out for him. On the second evening of our journey our hosts met us at the hotel to take us to dinner at one of their favorite restaurants. Our female host, who by day dressed casually, arrived in the lobby absolutely glowing in a designer dress with full hair and make-up and layered with jewelry, the clinking, gold bracelets wrapping halfway up her forearm. The ladies in our party, who had joked about me being overdressed in my suit and tie, froze when they saw her and then all ran back up to their rooms to change clothes and level it up a notch. This was Italy, where every meal is approached with a sense of beauty, joy and reverence, the goal being that it is a lifelong remembrance.
I had not dined in the North End for quite a while. It was a cold, clear night and strolling down Hanover Street filled me with the feeling of what a great village it remains in this city, one that clings to tradition despite the wealth and gentrification the last decade has brought. The history, the architecture, the stories, all set against those big city lights looming in the background. The couples strolling arm in arm, the small shops, the smell of food as you walk along all reminded me of what a special place it is. A romantic place. Even the teenagers hanging on the corner were well-dressed and impeccably groomed. The notion of La Bella Figura lives on.
I'd been invited to dinner at Lucia. The theme was a Polenta Party. I had the feeling it was going to be a memorable night. It was. Bloggers, friends and writers were joined by owner Donato Frattaroli and Chef Pino Maffeo. We spent hours talking, eating and sipping wine. Lucia opened in 1977. The North End was a different place then, more of an ethnic enclave. The city was being ripped apart by the uglier side of forced busing and emotions were running high. Luckily, the restaurant was a success and it still serves up the really traditional Italian-American food that would make any Nonna proud. They've had a loyal following for generations of families looking to indulge in lasagna with fresh, house-made pasta, a good veal shank and all of their other favorites. As I walk up the creaky, wooden stairs to a large room where we will be served platters of food family style I know this is not just going to be a great meal. It's going to be an experience.
The red wine served was a Puglian Sangiovese.
The requisite antipasto plate included prosciutto di parma, salami, a sharp provolone, roasted peppers and marinated eggplant, all of excellent quality.
Next up was bruschetta for everyone starting with this mushroom-rich bite.
This brilliant broccoli rabe bruschetta added a great note of color to the table.
A tray of shrimp was served in an incredible balsamic glaze, something I've never had before on shrimp. This was one of my favorite tastes and the photo does it no justice.
When we were invited to visit the kitchen I was one of the first to literally jump out of my chair. When we were later asked for ideas for ways the restaurant could promote a Polenta Party night I suggested a visit to the kitchen be included. So many diners would love the chance to go behind the scenes at a great restaurant. Here, the bubbling pot of polenta, is being nearly constantly stirred.
The aroma of that sauce which, I am sure, had been simmering on the stove for many hours, made me wish I had brought a piece of bread to dip in.
As the second group descended into the kitchens we relaxed, sipped wine and chatted. This was not your typical blogger/media dinner, where a very specific program is followed. It was much more like a relaxed family dinner where the conversation was just as important as the meal and everyone was invited to bring their opinion to the table.
Braised rabbit with truffles were served on a pillow of creamy polenta. A few at the table opted to skip this taste, as many Americans do. There are lots of cultural reasons for it, I guess, pet rabbits, the whole image of a cute bunny, etc., and I can totally respect that. Admittedly, I hesitated to try rabbit myself but the first time I did I realized that I loved it. It is similar in texture to chicken but less stringy and with more flavor and because rabbit is raised much more naturally than chicken in this country there's more muscle and less fat. It's also sustainable. I am always encouraging people to just try it.
Additional platters of braised shortrib and sausage, then braised lamb shank and pork riblets were soon placed before us. And that gravy. The red sauce was worthy of anything that any Nonna has ever made, one of the very best I've had.
Dessert included trays of cake and delicious sorbettos.
The Hazlenut Cake, moist and flavorful, drizzled with creme anglaise and enjoyed with scoops of coconut and lemon sorbetto.
Although all of the food was great and the conversation interesting, fun and inciting I think I was expecting more polenta dishes and different kinds. It was suggested at least one fried polenta dish be added, perhaps smothered in that fabulous sauce and topped with that provolone. In any case, if you have a craving for great, traditional Italian food, nothing avant garde, this cannot be beat. If you want to make it a romantic dinner, simply take a stroll around.
415 Hanover Street
Boston, MA 02113