There are restaurants that capture the spirit of the Zeitgeist. There are grand dining restaurants for celebratory occasions. And there are restaurants that capture hearts.
Even before its official opening, neighborhood residents told me about Sophia's Grotto. "It looks so cute," said one. "So cozy," another exulted once the doors opened. "Did you like it?" a third asked after my first visit, as anxious as a parent at his child's talent show.
What's not to like, I think, as I find the gate on Birch Street and walk into a charming brick courtyard. After first wandering into the back door of Birch Street Bistro across the way, rather empty except for diners on the patio, I realize my mistake and hurry back across the courtyard and into Sophia's. The mood inside the little brick-lined restaurant with a subterranean feel is a little like a family party. The greeting at the door is exuberant. At one table, a little boy lines up plastic dinosaurs and zoo animals across a table as his parents and their friends chat; at another, older kids tuck into slices of pizza. People converse from table to table, couples snuggle close together along the seats at the bar, and an efficient waitress zooms from place to place, reciting specials, delivering plates, praising the wine special. In the tiny, partly exposed kitchen, where a wood fire blazes, cooks rush back and forth as appealing aromas waft into the dining room.
Sophia's Grotto, which opened in early spring, is a family enterprise run by Joe Garufi, his wife Sonia, and his brother John. Birch Street Bistro, which is several years old, is another family enterprise involving Garufi siblings. As neighborhood talk has it, Sophia's Grotto came about after a family split of some dimensions. But in a phone conversation, Garufi laughs and doesn't comment on the alleged split, concentrating instead on describing his place as somewhere easy to drop into "if you come home and don't feel like cooking."
Sophia's chef Alfredo Maravi earlier cooked under Mario Nocera at Terramia and Antico Forno and later at Prezza, all in the North End. His sensibility is Italian comfort food, with a few forays into other parts of the Mediterranean. He piles mozzarella and ricotta, tomatoes, roasted red peppers, and Italian sausage onto the thin crust of a pizza dubbed Vesuvio. (All the thin-crust pizzas cooked in the woodburning oven are named for regions in Italy, except, inexplicably, one called the Barcelona.) The crust is well-made and crisp, although the toppings slide almost immediately onto our plates. On a Spanish antipasto plate, Maravi layers olives, thin slices of Serrano ham, a long link of chorizo, roasted red peppers, and more.
Sometimes this generosity results in a muddle, such as an appetizer of portobello mushrooms layered with roasted eggplant, spinach, and lots of cheese. I don't doubt the presence of mushrooms but can't verify I tasted them. Other times, as in a Boston lettuce salad, with crunchy pale leaves of lettuce, nuggets of blue cheese, and walnuts, simplicity trumps. The cider vinaigrette and plump golden raisins complement the cheese and give the salad a nice distinction.
Maravi's pasta dishes aim for hominess and comfort rather than stylishness. A big bowl of gnocchi in a meaty Bolognese could easily feed several. Despite the hearty saucing, the gnocchi are light and well made. Pappardelle rest in a browned garlic sauce with scattered vegetables and fat shrimp. The garlic has been toasted enough to bring out its sweetness, and the sauce proves a good foil to the shrimp. The only drawback is that the shrimp are slightly dry. And, though a mascarpone sauce with shrimp, scallops, and zucchini over flat, open-faced ravioli is supposed to be rich -- anything with the creamy, unctuous cheese would have to be -- it's enough to drown out any hint of the seafood flavors.
This over-exuberance shows up, too, on the mustard crust atop panseared salmon -- there's so much of it that the assertive mustardy flavor overwhelms the fish. Other entrees meld their components more successfully, such as a paella with a bounty of mussels, clams, calamari, and vegetables that displays a nice touch with seasoning in the saffron rice and soupy broth. Best is a special entree of seared scallops over a parsnip puree and Swiss chard. The scallops are perfectly cooked, their sweetness balanced with the slightly bitter green, smoothed with the delicate tones of the parsnips, and accented by crunchy, salty bits of pancetta.
Small though it is -- 40 seats, plus a few more at the bar -- Sophia's boasts a pleasing wine list with some reasonably priced Spanish and New World wines. Dessert requires careful planning, especially in a place with such generous entree portions. One evening we try a chocolate torte, but its texture is sludgy and its heaviness puts us over the top after a bite or two. Cheesecake may not appeal to dieters, particularly when it includes sour cream, but Sophia's lemon cheesecake matches some acidity in the fruit with a silky texture.
Sophia's Grotto offers good food, friendly service and a chance to see some of the diversity of Roslindale's neighborhoods in the same restaurant. It's after 9 p.m. when we leave, and diners are still lining up -- on a weeknight, no less -- to join Sophia's family party.