Dining Out

Simply complex

Erbaluce defies expectations

Rack of wild boar with a sauce of fermented wild Concord grapes is a staple of the menu. Rack of wild boar with a sauce of fermented wild Concord grapes is a staple of the menu. (Photos by Erik Jacobs for the Boston Globe)
By Devra First
Globe Staff / December 10, 2008
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The devil is not the only one in the details. Forces of good can reside there, as well.

Take the olive. With red pimiento from a jar, acceptable in a pinch. Oil-cured with Moroccan spices, lovely. Marinated for a year, enchanting, almost excruciatingly briny - can make the difference on a plate between cooked and crafted.

At Erbaluce, chef Charles Draghi makes these olives. He might serve them with a lamb terrine, also crafted: a composed slice with layers of fat-suffused meat and root vegetables cut in a painstaking brunoise. Each bite is accented by pink peppercorns, bracing and lively. It doesn't taste like any terrine I've eaten in any other Boston restaurant, ever.

Draghi's food isn't like most restaurant food, though. It's lighter, subtler, driven by herbs and warm spices and aromatic-infused liquids; he doesn't use butter or cream in savory dishes. It draws from Italy, particularly Piedmont, where Draghi's family has its roots, but it isn't traditional. If you ate at Marcuccio's in the mid- to late '90s, or Limbo or 33 when they first opened, you may have tasted Draghi's handiwork. Since then he's pursued several restaurant projects that never quite came to be and worked the front of the house at No. 9 Park.

Erbaluce was the one that came to be, located in Bay Village in the old Dedo space; Draghi and partner Joan Johnson opened it in October. It's named after a grape, which you will find represented on the list of out-of-the-ordinary wines. If you are interested in Italian bottles, and have the wherewithal, Erbaluce's selection is well worth exploring at the higher end; offerings at more quotidian prices, such as the 2006 Roagna dolcetto, drink very well, too. (Some servers seem very familiar with the wine, others less so.)

For further quotidian prices, Erbaluce has an enoteca menu served in the bar area at the front of the restaurant, a dark space with basic tables, a floor made from pieces of tile, and flickering candlelight. (The dining room prices are actually quite reasonable, too.) Some of these offerings are unique, some slightly pared-down versions of what's being served in the dining room. For example, one evening we find spaghi with local clams and a tomato and bronze fennel broth in the enoteca, and a slightly more expensive version of the dish made with bottarga di muggine (cured mullet roe) in the dining room. The enoteca's version is a delight, a bowl of chewy pasta with fresh clams in the shell, in a pool of subtle, flavorful liquid.

A fish antipasto assortment is bountiful, and includes something wonderful: slices of smoked shark served with mandarin orange segments that taste as though they've soaked in a syrup of fresh herbs. The fish is novel on its own, firm and fairly mild, but with a hint of wildness that says: I once had teeth. Paired with the perfumey oranges, the taste is doubly novel. A second antipasto is more pedestrian, bay scallops and mussels in a broth that hints of green peppers; one mussel is so gritty I hear it crunch in my friend's teeth from across the table, over Stevie Wonder playing on the sound system. The third selection bowls us over again: oysters baked in the shell with prosciutto, lemon, olive oil, and plenty of herbs.

The dining room beyond the enoteca offers more flickering candlelight, white walls, and linens. It's dim, but still feels light. An array of Hubbard squash graces a windowsill, and there's interesting art on the walls. (Johnson's brother works at the Berenberg Gallery.) The simplicity of the space is welcome - it's not stark, but it's peaceful enough to allow you to give most of your attention to the food. Which is complex. But simple. But complex. There is simultaneously a lot going on, and a synthesis of flavor; all of the tones in a dish combine to make a hum.

For a first course, turnips are roasted (they could be roasted a bit more), then topped with melted taleggio and a sauce involving anchovies, capers, and raisins. The pungent aroma of the cheese pairs with the pungent flavor of the turnips, while bringing a creaminess to the mix. More pungency from capers, more from anchovies, and salt, which is balanced by the rounded-fruit sweetness of the raisins.

Brussels sprouts and cauliflower are sauteed into tenderness, a bit of crispness at the edges. A cloak of lemon-and-marjoram tinted zabaione turns the humble vegetables into something elegant.

Pansoti, cousins of ravioli, are stuffed with sauteed greens and ricotta, topped with a pesto of walnuts and lemon thyme. Made with dense, creamy ricotta, the dish is surprisingly rich. Erbaluce's pasta, mostly made in house, is excellent. One night Draghi, on his customary rounds of the room, bestowed on my table complimentary, unexpected, and rather large portions of fettuccine tangled up with speck. We had so much food yet to come, but it was impossible to stop eating the pasta. (I'm still regretting my failure to order gnocchi with ragu of baby lamb, parsnips, and lavender. Surely we could have managed a few bites.)

Erbaluce's menu changes all the time, but a rack of wild boar is a constant. The meat is roasted to rosiness, as tender as pork but just slightly more aggressive in flavor. It's served with a sauce of fermented Concord grapes. They're wild, too, with a beguiling, musky sweetness. Roasted veal loin is treated with lemon and capers, with plenty of bitter rabe on the plate; the meat has real flavor, the way an heirloom turkey does compared with a Butterball.

There are occasional lulls in the food. Pasta can err on the side of intensely al dente. A dish of tagliatelle with duck egg yolk, black truffles, and Parmigiano has warm, rich flavor, but it's not as layered as many of the other dishes. Lobster broth with lobster, tortellini, and vegetables is too watery, the flavor of the broth not quite concentrated enough. And, to me, a dessert that features a little dish of chocolate and hazelnut paste beside a little dish of apples cut into the tiniest dice with hazelnuts doesn't quite come together, though there's nothing wrong with either part.

Poached pears, however, are poached-pear perfection: not mushy but easy to cut with the side of a spoon, delicate in flavor, served with mascarpone and a lavender-caramel sauce. A budino of apples is reminiscent of bread pudding but fragrant with almonds, with a cardamom creme anglaise. Gelati and sorbetti are made in house; a coffee-marsala gelato is particularly good.

At the end of the meal, we're served a few roasted chestnuts, one last detail attended to. The extra treat, the careful knife work, the warm goodbye from the owners - these things matter. When you come back, it won't be the devil that made you do it.

Devra First can be reached at


69 Church St., Boston. 617-426-6969. www.erbaluce- All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.

Prices Enoteca: $7-$17. Dining room: First courses $7-$12. Pasta $17-$29. Main courses $19-$29. Dessert $7-$14.

Hours Sun-Thurs 5-10 p.m., Fri-Sat 5-11 p.m. Bar open one hour later each night.

Noise level Stevie Wonder, disco, and Ella Fitzgerald, loud enough to enjoy.

May we suggest

Fish antipasto, spaghi with local clams, sauteed Brussels sprouts and cauliflower, fettuccine, boar.

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