Legendary restaurants aren't always the big-name places. Nor do fans stay faithful to one special place year after year because of formal service or even the finest cuisine. Just ask the regulars who wait outside Pomodoro on Hanover Street in the North End. The drawbacks -- only eight tables crammed into a tiny room, no coffee or dessert -- don't dissuade the faithful who love the food and the ambience.
Now Siobhan Carew, a native of Ireland who started out in the restaurant business when she waited tables at the Daily Catch and decided to open a restaurant next door, is taking customers with her. She has joined with Jim Scoon to open another Pomodoro. Scoon is the owner but Carew, as manager and consultant, is the driving force.
But another Pomodoro in Brookline Village, a few doors down from the very popular pub, Matt Murphy's, begs the quesx tion of whether the quirky, very personalized version of an Italian restaurant can be cloned. Brookline Village has a different gestalt than the North End, and the restaurant, which opened last December, is a bigger, sleeker version of the original. With Frank Van Overbeeke as chef, the menu is a relaxed version of Italian, with many of the ingredients but without the strict attention to region that seems to be popular lately.
A elliptically shaped bar anchors the center of the room; cloth hangings decorate the walls in the high-ceilinged room and banquettes line the edges of the room. On an early visit, Carew is everywhere, pouring water, handing out extra helpings of bruschetta, suggesting the wine made in Jamaica Plain, bringing out tiny cups of chocolate mousse. But by a later visit, Pomodoro seems less egocentric, more like a recognizable neighborhood spot.
There are even bathrooms complete with scented candles (in the North End, patrons are instructed to go across the street to a coffee and gelato cafe).
A wintry evening proves that the place is already a magnet in this new locale. At 7 p.m., the place is full. So much for my assumption that a Tuesday in February means plenty of empty seats. But the wait is short as a companion and I perch at the little bar and watch Van Overbeeke and his cooks in the kitchen move like ballet dancers on speed.
When one of us orders Tuscan vegetable soup, the waiter returns with bowls for all, explaining the cooks had made extra. It's a Pomodoro touch, and the fragrant soup, full of vegetables, drizzled with a little pesto and topped with a crostini toasted with Parmesan, banishes any chill of winter. A salad of mixed lettuces is mostly baby spinach with a tangy vinaigrette and an overabundance of salt, and a Romaine version eludes the ordinariness of Caesar with a spiedini, or skewer, of cubes of toasted bread, mozzarella, and prosciutto.
Although most of the appetizers are rustic, a pretty polenta cake stuffed with mozzarella and topped with a big grilled shrimp is fancier, and with a dollop of olive tapenade, makes a most satisfying couple of bites. The original Pomodoro is famed for its zesty tomato sauce. Its flavor successfully crossed the city and perks up some otherwise ho-hum fried calamari. The sauce also lives large in a big bowl of seafood fra diavolo, the spice of the sauce and clams, mussels and chunks of white fish over linguini making even a winter's night seem summery.
That exuberance lingers, tarnishing the impact of the white sauce: A perfectly fine wine-based concoction over clams and linguini tastes pallid. And though Pomodoro puts out some fine vegetarian offerings, such as a mild dish of sauteed zucchini and tomatoes tossed with linguini and chopped walnuts, those don't resonate like the heartier dishes. A classic lasagna with a meat sauce layered with sheets of pasta and cheese is richly satisfying.
Cured pork products figure in several dishes, with varying success. The pancetta wrapping cod overwhelms the fish's flavor, particularly since it's set on top of brandade. The creamy salt cod mixture is good but further obscures the cod. However, a fat veal chop surrounded by roasted mushrooms flecked with pancetta benefits from its saltiness, which also flavors broccoli rabe and slips over into a rather cheesy lemon risotto. As at the original in the North End, there's no danger of going hungry here. Pork roast confited in duck fat sports plenty of rosy pork, roasted potatoes, nicely bitter greens, and that Southern Italian favorite, vinegared peppers. It's a robust dish, one to bolster the weary snow-shoveler.
But not all the dishes, even the major players, are overwhelming. A whole red snapper is simply grilled and then presented with a sprinkling of herbs and a red onion-and-fennel salad. The clean, true taste of the fish with its crackly skin is appealing. For a fleeting moment, you can imagine yourself in an outdoor restaurant on the Amalfi coast with the sun and the breeze signaling summer. We happen in on the first night of desserts in late February. The waiter is psyched about them, saying he's been sampling sweets all day long. He recommends the dense chocolate cake, set in a pool of chocolate sauce decorated with white chocolate squiggles. It's rich, sweet and good for chocolate fiends, if pretty standard. A warm crostata, a freeform tart, is better with its filling of apples and pears and a nicely flaky crust. And the coffee is excellent.
The blossoming of the second Pomodoro to fit the Brookline Village neighborhood is well-established by this time of the evening, from a careful waitstaff to an appealing wine list. That makes the last carryover from the North End especially startling -- like the other Pomodoro, only cash is accepted. As I trot down the street to an ATM pointed out by our waiter, who is going down for a quick visit to Matt Murphy's, I decide this must be one of the most frequented cash outposts in Brookline. After all, who carries $100 or more every night to dine out in a sit-down restaurant with several entrees at $20 or more?
Pomodoro may have added a location, but the quirkiness remains.