Ciao, Benatti. What brings a little Italian gem like you to East Cambridge? The neighbors are all dishing out bacalhau and feijoada, and you show up and start sprinkling balsamic on everything. Things could get ugly during soccer season.
Benatti opened in January on the stretch of Cambridge Street exiting Inman Square, home to many excellent Portuguese and Brazilian restaurants. Located in the space formerly occupied by the much loved O Cantinho, it's a departure. O Cantinho was cozy and cheerful, its warm yellow walls adorned with blue-and-white pottery. Benatti is chic, with cool gray paint and modern furnishings. O Cantinho was homey, Benatti is romantic. O Cantinho was budget dining, Benatti is not.
But Benatti is worth it. It, too, deserves to be much loved. It earns it with its elegantly laconic menu: three antipasti, seven pasta dishes (and one exquisite risotto), five well-turned entrees, and six desserts that are far better than anyone disillusioned by the average Italian-restaurant dolci has hope to expect.
The restaurant is named for chef-owner Andrea Benatti; he and general manager Anna Encarnacao relocated from Key West, where the couple worked at his restaurant Opera until city life called them away. The chef grew up in Modena, Italy, the birthplace of balsamic, which perhaps explains his liberal use of the vinegar. "Everyone says that," Encarnacao, who is originally from Brazil, says with a laugh.
Together they've created a charming package. The food is sometimes perfectly simple, sometimes gently innovative, and always genuine. The space is intimate, with room for about 25 guests among the two-tops and the larger surfboard-shaped table by the window. A tiny butcher-block bar offers a view of the kitchen. Behind it, Encarnacao pours wine - a glass for you, a glass for her - while Benatti stands at the stove, flames erupting occasionally from his frying pan. Wearing a red-and-green-trimmed chef's coat and arty,angular eyeglasses, his hairproducted into place, he looks so consummately Italian one wouldn't be surprised to find a Vespa back there, too. When there's a lull, he'll step out to ask how your meal is.
It should be nearly impossible to get a table here. But, although business appears to have picked up in recent weeks, a table is almost always yours for the getting. Fine dining in this part of Cambridge seems to be enough of a novelty that if it's raining, or it's Tuesday, or the stars aren't aligned, Benatti's not full.
It's time to change that. The risotto is reason enough. Peppery and dark brown, it's infused with the deep flavors of demi-glace and porcini. The grains have the exactly right, elusive amount of bite to them. The dish gets better with each mouthful.
Of course, there's also the gnocchi: Super-light and fluffy, they dissolve in the mouth, leaving a hint of earthy potato flavor on your tongue. They're served with pesto, green and creamy, an elixir of basil and nuts. (It, too, is heavy on the pepper - when it comes to that and salt, Benatti's food sometimes veers toward excess.) The pasta is handmade each morning for dinner that night. And then there's the fettuccine, in an excellent, classic Bolognese. And the tortelloni, pillowy dumplings of mild ricotta and spinach, in a balsamic and walnut sauce that is one giant power chord of flavor: sharp, sweet, harmonic. Forget the tinny, thin balsamic that so often douses salads. From Modena, the vinegar here is an entirely different substance, dark and ancient, something that should fill cruets on refectory tables.
An antipasto of grilled vegetables also makes use of it. Asparagus, zucchini, red peppers, fennel, and eggplant, striped with grill marks, are treated with olive oil, salt, and more of that amazing balsamic. If you wonder how something so simple could be so good, think of a steak prepared the same way.
The entrees are a bit more involved. Slices of roast pork fan out like collapsed dominoes. In a golden rosemary sauce, adorned with a rosemary branch, they face off against a rectangle of lasagna on the plate. The pork is cooked a shade past rosy, and it's delicious. The lasagna is browned on top, a touch chewy, with a faint gamy flavor from the fontina and pancetta filling.
A risotto cake, fried crisp, is topped with two pieces of pan-seared yellowtail, one draped on the other. This tower sits in a pool of saffron vinaigrette that, paired with the crunchy risotto, makes the whole dish taste golden. A lamb special one night is also excellent, four chops crusted with mustard, panko, and fresh herbs, perched on grilled polenta and served with asparagus and a sauce made from demi-glace, red wine, and mint. The portion sizes at Benatti are not too small and not American huge - a good thing if you want to start with a half-order of pasta. (To do so, there's a $3 charge - so, say, a half-order of the $20 risotto is $13 - that may rub some the wrong way. It might be better menu psychology to list full and half prices for each pasta.)
For dessert, you could get tiramisu. It's light and boozy, a really good rendition, though heavy on the cocoa powder - this negates the creaminess of some bites. But there are more interesting options. A Negroni terrine looks like pate, tastes like Campari and bitter orange, and is the best dessert I've had in a while.
Apple ravioli are fried dumplings filled with roasted fruit, served with a honey-ginger sauce that balances sweetness and zip. A triangle of sauce inscribed around the dumplings makes the dessert look like a Masonic symbol, but it tastes wonderful. Poached pear with gorgonzola ice cream isn't in the same league. The pear is hard and requires a knife; the ice cream is pale blue, served in a pastry cup, and tastes, indeed, like gorgonzola. In theory this is a good idea, but in practice it's startling. If you eat the pear, the ice cream, and the pastry together, the dish works. But the elements don't stand on their own.
The wine list is all Italian, with good values from places such as Puglia and Sardinia as well as bottles for special occasions. When asked for recommendations, Encarnacao several times suggests a less expensive bottle than we were originally considering. On many nights, she handles the front of the house by herself, playing hostess, waitress, and sommelier while Benatti cooks. It feels as though they've invited you to their place for dinner.
It's an invitation you should accept. This is the kind of food you think about long after it's gone.
Devra First can be reached at email@example.com.