Salem’s got a treat in 62 Restaurant
The finest reason to go to Salem this month has nothing to do with Halloween. It is chef Antonio Bettencourt’s 62 Restaurant & Wine Bar, which opened in 2008 and is currently serving some of the best modern Italian food to be found in the area. (On a recent visit, however, we do see a hooded coven performing sacred rituals in the parking lot.)
A very lively bar at the front of the restaurant gives way to a quieter dining room, decorated with picture frames surrounding botanical still lifes painted directly on the dark red walls.
The menu begins with spuntini, small plates to accompany a cocktail or glass of wine. Each is more appealing than the last. There is little to complain about when it comes to toast covered in a drift of ricotta, with figs and a drizzle of honey, except perhaps that its billing as “crostini’’ implies there will be more than one piece of bread. That would be welcome to scoop up the overload of creamy ricotta. One could eat a meal composed solely of fritters here. Spheres of potato and salt cod are fried crisp and golden, served with lemon-caper aioli. Even more delicious are rectangular chickpea fritters, which taste somewhat like falafel, intriguingly paired with sweet date compote. And best yet are arancini, rice fritters filled with gooey mozzarella and accompanied by savory tomato confit with basil. Which is not to knock the delicious meatballs of pork, beef, and ricotta, with a deeply flavorful tomato sauce, on a bed of creamy polenta. All of these will make you very happy.
But you haven’t even tried the zucchini blossoms yet. The flowers are filled with a mixture of crab meat, ricotta, and preserved lemon, three flavors that belong together, as it turns out. The parcels are fried but not heavy or oily, as squash blossoms too often are when they make their rare appearances on area menus. The preserved lemon lends the perfect note of perfume and tartness.
Best of all may be confit pork belly served with a spicy, complex red cabbage slaw. Flavors flit across your tongue - Thai chilies, cilantro, vinegar, brown sugar. The heat from the pork belly wilts the cool cabbage just a bit, and the juices from the meat mingle with the purple shreds.
Pasta is made in house each day, and it can be ordered as a traditional Italian midsize course or an American main course. There are six pasta dishes on the current menu, and all are very good. Fazzoletti are little envelopes made from squares of folded whole wheat dough. Store-bought whole wheat pasta is often a letdown, but this has a welcome, subtle earthiness. The fazzoletti are paired with zucchini, ricotta, basil, and preserved lemon. The flavors are light and fresh, while toasted bread crumbs lend crunch. Fluffy ricotta gnocchi are cloaked in a rich ragu of tomato and short rib with Parmesan, pure, deeply flavored comfort food. It’s all so good, but Bettencourt’s garganelli is in a class of its own. The rolled, penne-esque pasta is tossed with pieces of tender duck braised in red wine, dried cherries, pine nuts, and dark green shreds of kale. Savory, sweet, sour - it’s perfectly balanced, irresistibly composed.
Spuntini and pasta dishes are miniature canvases, with many tastes layered cleverly. Entrees offer more surface to spread out, and Bettencourt’s flavors are bigger and less nuanced. Slow-roasted pork shoulder gets drizzled with salsa verde, served with broccoli rabe, gigante beans, and fingerling potatoes. The pork is tender but slightly dry. Duck breast, however, is tender and juicy, accompanied by Swiss chard and butternut squash, with vincotto vinaigrette. It’s a wonderful fall dish.
Seared scallops come with a sort of succotash of wild mushrooms, roasted corn, pancetta, and black truffles that is far too salty, an occasional flaw of 62’s dishes. One evening, rabbit loin wrapped in pancetta is delicate in flavor and texture, complemented by tart apple-cranberry chutney. On another visit, the rabbit has a salt-pork flavor and a rubbery texture reminiscent of ham. It’s a reminder of the variables at work in a restaurant kitchen, where the same dish can amaze and disappoint on different nights of the week.
Service is a strong point here. One evening our waitress responds to our request for an inexpensive bottle of wine with the care and enthusiasm sometimes reserved for big spenders (we opt for reasonably priced glasses instead), warns us off the apple budino in favor of the toffee pudding, and generally aids and abets our evening with such skill and cheer we want to ask her to join us. The toffee pudding is the sticky, buttery, sugary, warm confection you’d imagine, with a quenelle of whipped cream to cut the sweetness a bit. It’s very good, but a chocolate terrine has the edge, served with hazelnut gelato and crushed candied espresso beans. The only real problem with 62 is the soundtrack, obnoxious techno completely at odds with the food and the atmosphere.
Before opening his Salem restaurant (originally called Sixty2 on Wharf), Bettencourt worked at restaurants such as Tomasso Trattoria in Southborough and UpStairs on the Square. You also may have caught him on the Bravo cooking competition “Rocco’s Dinner Party’’ in August. The talented chef lost. Don’t believe everything you see on TV. Bettencourt’s cooking makes 62 Restaurant & Wine Bar a winner.