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Sophisticated menu for a rustic room

Iam sitting in Grotto, a basement restaurant in what is sometimes called the "wrong side" of Beacon Hill. The room is painted red -- everything is red, from walls to pipes to ceiling. The shelf above us holds liqueur bottles and a heat lamp; above that are the fuse boxes. Across the room, another space heater is combating the cold. The tables are close enough together that we could hold hands with the couple next to us. The ambience could be called cozy and romantic. Or in an era of architecturally designed restaurant interiors (even for sandwich shops), it could be called a throwback to do-it-yourself college hangouts.

The couples and foursomes crowding in on a cold Saturday night don't seem to mind, leaning in close together in the tribal response to winter. The waitstaff adds to that with soft-voiced and solicitous service.

After the first spoonful of a garlic soup with oyster mushrooms and lavender, the funky background drops away, and I concentrate on the food. It's lucious: a heady, creamy puree that warms the throat. The lavender is only a suggestion, thankfully, since floral herbs can be jarring, and pomegranate seeds add delightful color and a juicy crunch. Then I taste my companion's soup of large beans with chunks of tripe and mushrooms in a big bowl of tomato broth. It's difficult to decide which is better -- the smooth sophistication of the garlic or the gutsiness of the beans and tripe.

This tiny place, which opened last summer, has one of those disconnects that some dedicated diners search out. The surroundings may be humble; the cuisine is anything but -- a discrepancy means fancy food at fairly reasonable prices. There's no bar verve with cocktails being shaken and poured, but cosmos and other martinis are served up from the kitchen. The wine list, with a concentration on Italian bottles, doesn't show off a deep cellar, but there's enough to choose from at reasonable prices.

Chef-owner Scott Herritt and his team are all listed on the menu. Together, three of them create some amazing dishes from a tiny kitchen -- it's easy to see its dimensions when you walk past en route to the restroom.

The unifying theme is Italian but very loosely interpreted. We try housemade pumpkin cavatelle, gently formed little mounds served with pancetta, spinach, and mushrooms in a creamy sauce. The flavors are subtle, and because the dish is so filling, it's a good appetizer to share. Gnocchi serve as a vehicle to soak up the sauces from braised short ribs and caramelized sweet-and-sour onions. The meat is spoon-tender, and the lovely edge of sweetness from the onions adds depth. Other meat dishes lean too much toward sweet sauces. A grilled pork chop is another well-handled and tender piece of meat, although in this case a dried cherry sauce proves to be a little too sweet. Wilted greens and roasted potatoes, luckily, offset that. Slightly sweet sauces and richness also permeate a panroasted duck breast in a cider reduction. Polenta is laced with mascarpone cheese, delightfully rich.

The fish of the moment is cod, which with its firm, snowy flesh can be fantastic or boring. Grotto's version is a thick filet lightly crusted with very thin potato slices so that it's not actually a taste but a texture. The coriander sauce with a zippy undercurrent of spice makes a pleasing counterpoint, but the expert searing and then finishing off of the fish so that it literally melts on the tongue make the dish shine.

The mild taste of golden trout, with its pale salmon color, goes well with nuggets of bacon and bitter bursts of capers and horseradish. The gnocchi on this dish are a little heavy, although they do convey the buttery juices from under the fish.

Nothing is held back in any of the dishes and none is more exuberant than one of spaghetti and meatballs with, as the restaurant says, "Brady's insanely fabulous tomato sauce." The enthusiasm makes it irresistible, but the actual eating deflates the image slightly. The plate is piled almost insanely high with spaghetti and the meat sauce, more spritely and chunky than some versions, is all right, but not fabulous.

The meatballs, about the size of golf balls, are too heavy to be that big. It's a dish that seems to have been borrowed from another menu -- not at all bad but pales when it's up against the more refined palate of the other entrees.

Dessert returns to that palette, and though the choices are not unusual ones, each is well crafted. An apple tart is really a small pie with a lovely crumbly crust. Molten chocolate cake has all the elements done right -- cake that's firm enough to be called that, and a velvety liquid center. And although the ice cream and sorbets are not made in house, the flavors -- cinnamon ice cream and coffee and mango sorbet -- provide a soft landing after a rich meal. That and giant, cappuccino-sized cups of good coffee.

Grotto feels like a well-kept secret: The ambience is a bit rough; the dishes sometimes a little unbalanced, but the soul of the cooking and attention to details give spirit to an evening out.

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