Dinner theater

Email|Print| Text size + By Alison Arnett
October 14, 2004

The receptionist at Via Valverde pauses after taking my reservation. "Have you dined with us before?" he asks. I fib -- I've already given a false name, after all -- and say no. He outlines the dress policy: no shorts, sneakers, sandals, etc., and jackets are recommended for men, though not required. "Is that all right with you?" he asks in a challenging tone. "Fine," I murmur, wondering if anyone is bold enough to protest.

There's a definite style at Via Valverde, named for the street in Sicily where owner Paolo Diecidue's family home still stands. It starts with the first telephone call, runs through the greeting at the door -- women are always called "signora," and each gesture by the host has a dramatic flourish -- and on into the upstairs dining room, where a battalion of waiters chorus more "signoras" and earnestly suggest the tasting menu and the featured $55 bottle of wine on the table. "Fancy Italian" is the not-so-subtle message.

Via Valverde in the North End is a two-storied affair, a wine bar downstairs and a more formal dining room upstairs. With windows overlooking Hanover Street and a fireplace, the upstairs room is a pleasant place to spend an early autumn evening. That's a boon, because when we order three appetizers for four people, each starter is divided into four portions and served one at a time. Plates and silverware are replenished for each mini-course. By the time we get to the main meat-and-fish dishes, we're on the fourth course and the night approaches the witching hour.

Dining out these days is never just about the food, and we've come to believe that being entertained is part of the evening. At Via Valverde, though, the experience can veer toward a "Saturday Night Live" skit. When I call to change a reservation from one weeknight to the next, the reservationist says, "I'm sorry, we're fully booked," then quickly adds, "I can squeeze you in." The night we go, only two other tables are occupied.

All the drama can overshadow the food. Via Valverde's chef, Daniel DeCarpis -- formerly chef at nearby Trattoria a Scalinatella, also owned by Diecidue -- brings the rich sauces, luxurious portion sizes, and excellent way with meats with him. In fact, the menu on Scalinatella's website lists many similar dishes. According to Diecidue, Scalinatella may be sold soon so that he can concentrate on Via Valverde.

DeCarpis takes a simple idea like a bruschetta, changes the toppings nightly, and one evening manages to create a little symphony of smoked salmon and greens on a flatbread. His flaky little tart -- layered with pears, whipped pecorino cheese, and prosciutto -- slides down the throat, beautiful in its separate ingredients and elegant in execution. An appetizer of crespelle, the Italian answer to crepes, boasts wonderful foraged mushrooms and creamy mascarpone seasoned with truffle powder. But the delicate crepes taste of too much frying and extra oil, which undercut the flavors of the mushrooms and cheese.

No matter how daring its menu, the key for any Italian restaurant is its pasta -- good pasta means return patrons. The snail shape of Via Valverde's lumache pasta catches a creamy sauce of mascarpone studded with asparagus, a sumptuous treat best enjoyed in only a few bites. Malfatte, or irregularly shaped little pasta bundles, are tossed with fava beans, fresh peas, and escarole, a light combination that gets a salty boost from a prosciutto broth. It's a pasta worth returning for, both for the gentle flavors and the subtle contrast in textures: firm fava against softer peas against al dente pasta. A dish of wide pappardelle noodles, on the other hand, shows off lovely wild mushrooms, only to submerge them in a muddy soup of vegetable broth. The pasta gets soggy, and the taste of the mushrooms is overwhelmed by too much truffle oil.

A fish dish appears nightly on the menu. One evening it's tuna done very simply, with an accompaniment of pea tendrils and fingerling potatoes -- rather unorthodox for this classically Italian menu. The tuna is fine, but I wished for another sort of treatment, especially since southern Italians and Sicilians have such a wonderful way with robust tuna dishes.

Meat dishes take center stage at Via Valverde. Rack of pork sports thick chops topped with fennel that has been slowly caramelized into sweetness; a simple pan sauce shows off the quality of the meat, and black olives add a salty accent. Veal tenderloin is tenderly roasted in a wine sauce and served with mushrooms and a fluff of mashed potatoes, a classic done well. The star, though, is a more complicated dish of rabbit leg stuffed with rabbit sausage, made in-house, and wrapped in pancetta. The lean meat of the rabbit especially benefits from Italian bacon and the moist sausage. With oyster mushrooms and a savory broth, the flavors signal autumn better than falling leaves.

Via Valverde has a long wine list, with good selections in Italian wines from many regions. The dessert list is succinct but well chosen. Lemon curd is nestled in a wonderfully flaky tart crust; obviously someone here has a nice touch with pastry. A chocolate hazelnut cake is really more a cupcake, a rather pleasing alternative to the ubiquitous molten chocolate affair. And fruit with lemon sabayon proves to be the most fitting and delicious way to end a long and fairly heavy meal.

The downstairs wine bar proves a comfortable spot to chat. However, its menu of dishes such as whipped brandade and potatoes, salami cured with pecorino, crostini, and other small plates is too limited to really substitute for a meal.

Though Via Valverde has much to recommend it -- the ingredients are excellent, and the quality of the cooking is high -- the upstairs dining room feels stiff. A little less formality, and a little less theater, would make dining here a more appealing experience.


Cuisine: Italian

Address: 233 Hanover Street, Boston (North End)

Phone: 617-617-8240

Hours: Wine bar: 4:30 p.m.-12:30 a.m. Dining room nightly: 5:30-10:30. Reservations accepted.

Prices: Antipasti: $10-$15; pasta: $20-$21; entrees: $26-$33; salads: $8-$9; dessert: $8-$10.

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