Cheap eats

A hangout in the making

(John Tlumacki/Globe Staff; Food Styling By Tlumacki)
By Denise Taylor
Globe Correspondent / September 9, 2009

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When we step off Causeway Street and into Ducali Pizzeria & Bar, it feels like we’ve left the North End. Two plasmas are tuned to the Sox game, a sound system blares techno tunes, and a young after-work crowd is sipping Harpoon drafts in the spare but cozy brick loft-look space. But Philip Frattoroli had two good reasons for opening his new restaurant right where it is.

First, the neighborhood is familiar turf. His father owns the red sauce classic Filippo Ristorante next door. His uncle owns North End stalwart Ristorante Lucia, and his aunt owns Artú on Prince Street.

Second, Frattoroli, 27, fell in love with Neapolitan-style pizza right around the time he decided the North End needed a new hangout, where locals could watch the game, sip beers, and still sup on good Italian food, sort of a North End version of Cheers.

His formula is simple: $4 microbrew drafts, wine starting at $5 a glass, and $6 to $8 cocktails paired with a brief menu of mainly salads, panini, and pizza.

We start with two pretty trays of antipasti served on wooden pizza paddles. The misto ($8) satisfies with delicate prosciutto; fatty, flavorful rounds of salami; mild provolone; and chips of aged Parmigiano-Reggiano so tasty we let it dissolve on our tongues like hard candy. But while we like that the sott’olio ($6.50) serves up olive-oil-drizzled veggies warm from the oven, they lack flavor.

Over three visits, we witness an uneven kitchen on an upward curve. Just after the July opening, fried calamari ($7.50) with tough squid and a dull coating is disappointing, and a pear salad ($6) suffers from unripe pears. The pizza is, at first, sometimes undercooked and the flavors unfinished.

Later though, a steak and gorgonzola salad ($9) is fabulous, with thin-cut fins of juicy steak seared until crisp at their fatty edges and pink in the middle. Grilled cheese panini ($5) is a gooey, comforting press of mozzarella and provolone on toasty scali bread. And the pizza crust becomes pleasingly thin, chewy, and bubbly.

We enjoy the patate ($8.50 small/$16 large; below), its thin rounds of potato amped up by rich gorgonzola, fresh rosemary, and crispy baconlike pancetta. The tre porcellini ($11/$21) is a meat lover’s feast of peppery sausage, salami, and pancetta. And the margherita ($7.50/$14), though not a classic margherita, would stand out for its flavorful sauce and chopped basil under a chewy layer of browned cheese if they renamed it cheese pizza. But the rugula ($9/$17), a white pizza, needs moisture (mushrooms or red peppers, perhaps?).

Ducali passes the test as a hangout. We’d gladly return for a beer and a pie. As for contending in the pizza wars? Not yet. But this is a spot to keep an eye on.

DUCALI PIZZERIA & BAR 289 Causeway St., Boston. 617-742-4144. MasterCard, Visa, AmEx accepted. Not accessible.

Prices Appetizers $5.50-$8. Panini and individual pizzas $6-$11.

Hours 11:30 a.m.-1 a.m. daily.

Liquor Beer, wine, and cocktail menu.

May we suggest Antipasto misto, steak and gorgonzola salad, patate pizza, tre porcellini pizza, margherita pizza (think of it as cheese pizza), grilled cheese panini.

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