A little luxury goes a long way
North End’s Prezza is a neighborhood joint big on sophistication, portions
This column goes out to anyone who’s ever wondered where to celebrate a special occasion in the North End, no expense spared. It also goes out to anyone who’s wondered where to have a delicious but reasonably priced meal in that neighborhood. That probably covers just about everyone living in the Greater Boston area.
Everyone wants to eat in the North End, with its cobblestone charm and cannoli. It’s the place to go for Italian food in Italian food-loving Boston. Or is it? The open secret is that you might be better off heading elsewhere for your primi and secondi. You could well wind up with a better meal for your money. North End restaurants can be wonderful, but they can also be mediocre. And they are often overpriced. Ask many people what the best restaurant in the neighborhood is, and they’ll tell you Neptune Oyster — not Italian at all.
But let’s not forget about Prezza, off the main drag of Hanover on Fleet Street. Named after his grandmother’s village in Italy, chef Anthony Caturano’s restaurant is one of the area’s pricier joints, serving antipasti, risotto and pasta, and wood-grilled meats. Entrees can break the $40 mark. There’s a wine list to seriously splash out on, with a reserve list of luxurious cabernets and Barolos. The interior is sophisticated and subdued, with dark wood, beige walls, dim lighting, and real art on the walls. It’s a place that seems designed for the expense account crowd, and they’re here, jovially splattering food all over their ties.
But Prezza is also a neighborhood joint. Young professionals meet for well-made cocktails and gnocchi in savory meat ragu, the enjoyably dense little dumplings seeming to take some of their genetic material from spaetzle. The restaurant’s Spaghetti & Meatball Wednesdays feature handmade tagliatelle with three meatballs for 6 bucks at the lively bar, the kind of place where the friendly bartender and her customers are on a first-name basis. “See you next week,’’ she calls to two gents on their way out. For every bottle of wine that breaks the $100 mark, there’s one in the $30-$50 range. And in the dining room, portions are so substantial that two people with average appetites can probably get away with sharing the kind of meal typically meant for one: an appetizer, a small order of pasta, an entree, and a dessert. It won’t be cheap exactly, but it will be reasonable, and it will be worth it.
Prezza’s menu features big flavors to match its big portions. Caturano, who got his start cooking with Todd English at Olives, takes much of his inspiration from the peasant dishes of Abruzzo and beyond. The food here is more about satisfaction than subtlety, more about complementary layers of richness than contrast.
Wild mushroom risotto is a study in umami, a bowl of creamy comfort with grains that strike just the right balance between chewy and soft. It’s one of the best risotti in town. Grilled clams are tender and smoky, swimming in a bowl of tomato sauce and nicely spiced sausage. Whole shrimp are wrapped in kataifi, crisp strands of phyllo, served with a bit of slaw and drizzled in cherry pepper aioli. (It’s a less-refined version than the langoustines in kataifi you’ll find at Menton, but it can be yours for $16, and Caturano served it first.) Wood-grilled skirt steak has wonderful chew and beefy savor, enhanced by mild gorgonzola cream. Roasted portobellos are nearly as meaty, served with tomato and a spill of loose polenta that makes you want to eat polenta every night. These are appetizers, but many of them could serve nicely as a light supper.
Prezza has a ravioli fixation, with three variations on the current menu. You may have one, too, after trying the ravioli di uovo, supersized packages that come one per serving. Bathed in brown butter, sage, and Parmigiano, they are filled with egg yolk that runs forth when you cut them open. When they’re at their best, they are a treat, but they need to be timed perfectly so outside and inside are both properly done. “How is the ravioli?’’ our waiter inquires one night. Well, the wrappers are still hard at the edges. “Yes, those are very difficult to cook properly,’’ he says, walking away. While we appreciate that bit of insight, we’d be even more appreciative if he had taken them off the bill or seemed even vaguely apologetic.
Lobster in a dish of tagliatelle one night is cooked a bit too long, so it’s slightly tough and chewy. When there aren’t a lot of ingredients in a dish, a few seconds here or there can make the difference between perfect and almost delicious.
Large hunks of meat require a bit less finesse, and blasted in the restaurant’s wood grill, they are a carnivore’s delight. A bone-in tenderloin, charred on the outside and rare inside, will please fans of filet mignon. Served with asiago-laced potatoes and sauteed spinach, it is more tender than it is flavorful. Many profess ardent love for this dish, which is $46. For $2 less, I prefer the veal porterhouse, a generous chop with a gentle smokiness. Served with saffron lobster risotto, broccoli rabe, and red wine sauce, it’s dynamite. Or you can go old-school, hunkering down with an entree of meatballs, sausage, ribs, tomato sauce, and more of that dreamy polenta — it’s a dish you might want to sneak off alone to eat, so you don’t have to share.
On the website Chowhound, some have posted suspicions about a wine-related bait-and-switch at Prezza — having ordered an inexpensive bottle, they were served a more expensive but similar selection, they say. We experience none of this. Upon asking for the $28 Casamatta Sangiovese, we receive the $28 Casamatta Sangiovese, and our server is careful to show us the label before opening it. Anyone who arrives at the restaurant without a specific bottle in mind might want an able guide to help navigate the 30-page list. Our friendly server offers plenty of assistance but is not quite as knowledgeable as he makes himself out to be; download a vintage chart app before you go.
Desserts offer the note of simple sweetness one craves at the end of a blowout meal, along with good coffee. Prezza has both covered, with well-made espresso drinks and the likes of lightly tart limoncello cheesecake or tiramisu parfait, which tastes more like whipped cream than anything. The knockout here is a fig turnover with Port glaze and pistachio gelato. The flavors offer just enough inventiveness, without pushing it — like many of Prezza’s dishes.
The restaurant, opened in 2000, has become part of the North End fabric. But when it comes to food, drink, and, yes, even value, Prezza stands out.
Devra First can be reached at email@example.com.