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New chef invigorates North End hot spot

Good chefs bring in the business, no doubt about it. But what happens when a chef moves on and someone else wields the pots and pans in a popular restaurant? Do the customers follow the talent in the same way that devotees follow hairdressers from salon to salon? Does the restaurateur advertise the change? Or try to pretend everything is the same? In the restaurant-packed confines of the North End, a Friday night teems with potential customers -- lining up at Giacomo's, reading menus posted on cafes along Salem and Hanover streets, piling out of cars at the few places that have valet service.

It's still the area people from all over Boston think of for dining out. And this summer, when the Democratic National Convention is literally across the street (now that the expressway has gone underground), the North End will undoubtedly be Dining Central.

But the competition is fierce, and making sure the restaurant's reputation outlasts a chef change is crucial. Terramia built its rep on the talents of Mario Nocera and his protege, Joseph Tinnirello. But Nocera sold his interest in the restaurant to co-owner Carla Agrippino-Gomes and returned to his native Italy; Tinnirello also left the restaurant. Now Chris Bussell -- who had sold his Cambridge restaurant, Butterfish, a few years ago and studied philosophy for a year and a half -- has taken over, cooking for an overflow crowd from the tiny kitchen.

At Butterfish, Bussell's cooking was Mediterranean with some flights into Americana. Here he sticks to Italian, continuing Terramia's adventurous bent but lightening the style a little.

A spring mushroom soup is illustrative: wild mushrooms float in a flavorful, clear broth. The effect is a little like early spring itself, usually elusive but sometimes, when the sun hits you just right, intense. And the accompanying toasts covered with melted fontina add comfort, like a sweater when the sun dips down. His grilled fresh sardines are another good appetizer, strong-flavored but tasting of the sea. A little caponata of tiny cubes of eggplant, onion, and tomato gives more zip with its sweet-sour tones.

Unfortunately the description of lobster fritters outshines the actual dish. They're leaden rather than light, and the frying overwhelms the sweetness of the lobster. Even the balsamic honey glaze doesn't help much. Maybe the lobster muse just didn't strike this night, because pasta envelopes filled with lobster also are dull. It's a sign that a dish doesn't work well when you remember the pasta fondly, and take note of the cubes of potato and sweet peas, but can't recall the marquee ingredient.

Gnocchi, always a tricky dish to get right, are small and fairly light. But the real allure of the dish is the sauce of cauliflower and pancetta, adding savory flavors and a slightly crunchy texture to contrast the tender gnocchi. Chicken is often the dish you don't want to order in a restaurant. Perceived as the safe choice of timid diners, it's sometimes neglected by chefs so that safe translates into boring. But Bussell roasts baby chicken simply and expertly so that its excellent quality is apparent, the bird succulent and moist under its brown skin. Pancetta adds a salty note mixed in with bitter chicory and skinny fingerling potatoes soak up the pan juices.

Roasted veal loin slices fanned over sauteed mushrooms and risotto with spinach and mint offers a stronger palette of flavors. The veal plays off a winey sauce, mushrooms, and a button of gorgonzola butter, all rich, dark tastes. Then the risotto lightens that richness with its bright green colors and intriguing herbal fragrance. You think of Italian restaurants for veal, but this is a departure, simultaneously elegant and robust.

Terramia, with its tiny kitchen and tightly configured dining room, doesn't serve coffee or desserts, unfortunate in a place where the food evoking Italy would seem to demand lingering. Even so, the ending -- and actually the service throughout the meal -- is a little abrupt. Our waiter drops the check on the table, rushes away, and then comes back to bring us the receipt without explaining that this is the end or even saying goodbye. The place is indeed busy, but a little more graciousness would send us out smiling. On another night, the wait staff is friendlier but the kitchen staff wanders in and out the front door repeatedly, giving a sort of haphazard feeling to the place.

One has to admire owner Agrippina-Gomes, though, for putting Bussell in the kitchen and for realizing that a restaurant's reputation always rests on its latest meal.

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