Fitting comfortably in the middle
For a small sum of money, one can eat well at a different spot every day of the week: There's pho in Fields Corner, Portuguese in Cambridge, dim sum in Chinatown, burgers, banh mi, chacareros, Kelly's Roast Beef . . . Is it lunchtime yet? Typing that made me hungry. Of course, for a large sum of money, one can also eat well: the tasting menu at Clio, a sushi bacchanalia at O Ya, degustations at L'Espalier.
Middling prices, however, have often meant middling food. But now the middle is becoming a genuine destination for "serious" restaurateurs and chefs who might once have headed for higher-priced ground. Newer restaurants such as Rocca, Pops, the Beehive, Gaslight, and Coda all aim for the middle way - and that list is without even leaving the South End. With dining becoming less and less formal, and with the crunch in the housing and credit markets, you can bet your subprime mortgage we'll be seeing more of the midrange.
Sagra, in Somerville, is a poster child for this kind of restaurant. It's not trying to be fancy or trendy, just comfortably nice: a neighborhood spot with dark red walls, black leather booths, flat-screens over the bar, and windows that open out onto Davis Square. The chef, Robert DeSimone, apprenticed in Italy and worked at Bricco in the North End with chef Marisa Iocco, who helped him open Sagra seven months ago. (He co-owns it with his brother and two Cambridge detectives.) The restaurant is named for a kind of local festival in Italy; according to its website, "the concept is 'roadside' Italian, not 'red-sauce' Italian."
Presumably the roads DeSimone is talking about are the tiny variety that wind toward the sea, not the autostrade (where the rest stops still serve better espresso than most American cafes do). How else to explain the special he calls "baby brodetto"? It's "baby" because it contains less seafood than the traditional variety, but the night we try it, it includes cod, scallops, cockles, mussels, clams, swordfish, shrimp, and squid, each magically cooked for just the right amount of time. The seafood soaks up a warming broth that is red and spicy and full-flavored. It's brimming with fish, and at $26 more expensive than the entrees on the regular menu (average price: $17.80). It's also one of Sagra's best dishes. "Don't worry," says our friendly waitress. "He'll offer it again." Indeed, the next time I'm there, so is the baby brodetto.
Sagra also offers a veal chop Milanese for $23. Elsewhere around town, veal chops have crept through the $30s and into the $40s. At Davio's, for example, the veal chop is $41; though the veal at Sagra is nowhere near as titanic, it's more than half as good. It's lightly breaded and fairly tender, served simply with spinach doused in lemon. (If there's ever a lemon shortage, look no further than Sagra for the blame. There's lemon in just about everything.)
The wine list is reasonable as well. A bottle of Cannonau di Sardegna is $26; full of berry flavor (Cannonau is what Sardinians call Grenache), it goes down easy, and on the wallet too. And there's an amarone for $56, a low price for a restaurant wine list.
Sagra has a small dining room, a bar, and a bar dining area. This makes it a place you can have a quiet dinner (it's a perfect date location for college students), a festive dinner, or a dinner you barely notice because you're watching the game. If it's the last, the bartenders are right there with you. "So, like, when school starts up again, this place is going to be really busy, isn't it?" one asks another on a slow August weekend, in an epiphanic moment between innings.
On a slow night like this, the service is good, though it's hard to predict what will happen when things pick up again. One waitress is clearly a pro, answering all of our questions and anticipating our every need. But other servers seem greener. Still, they're courteous even when making mistakes. A waiter who brings a salumi plate instead of what we ordered, an assortment of fried appetizers called the Grand Medley, apologizes profusely and treats our table extra-kindly the rest of the night.
It's a good thing we correct his mistake, because DeSimone is like the Deep Fryer Whisperer. He speaks its language, and it bends to his will. Nothing is greasy; everything is light and golden. A croquette is creamy and fluffy (and lemony!); calamari don't need dipping into the (lemony!) aioli; and olives stuffed with meat and fried are, well, how could those be bad?
Pastas are good too: seafood maccheroni, the seafood again perfectly cooked, served with frilly, shell-shaped noodles; ravioli with a simple, summery tomato sauce (if a bit too much of it). A salmon dish is dull, but lamb chops are juicy and pink-centered, accompanied by a red pepper and arugula salad. The salad's flavors are perfectly proportioned, the smoke of the roasted peppers and the sharpness of the arugula balancing each other.
But here's a real bummer: The pizzas are hit or miss. One night the Sagra pizza (mozzarella, pecorino, pancetta, and rosemary) is great, with a crisp crust; another, the margherita (talked up enthusiastically as featuring the best mozzarella di bufala ever) is pretty bad - the crust shows no evidence of having been in the wood-fired oven, and if that mozzarella was once the best ever, it's been sadly mistreated.
For dessert, there's a take on the pro forma tiramisu, a Nutella bread pudding, and the surprising winner of the lot, torta al vino. The cake, made with white wine, is embedded with juicy grapes, and the whole thing has a crunchy sugar top. Things are sweet at Sagra. All around the room people are raising glasses: an intellectual-looking middle-age couple, a group of 20-something girls at the bar, a few young parents who managed to find a baby sitter. Maybe they're toasting to good food and fair prices. At Sagra, the happy medium is well done.