High-end Italian in the North End

Email|Print| Text size + By Alison Arnett, Globe Staff
July 27, 2006

French equals rich sauces and expensive tabs; Italian food, simple, earthy, and cheap. Or at least cheaper. If those are your guideposts -- and you think the North End is the destination for an affordable night out -- you might want to adjust your expectations a little. Tresca, the new reincarnation of Via Valverde, is a case in point, a place where luxury ingredients and Italian cuisine meet and mingle.

Gone are the days when Mamma Maria represented the high end of North End dining and everything else was pretty much red sauce and checkered tablecloths. There are plenty of upscale spots in this restaurant-packed neighborhood. Still, on a warm night when crowds are pushing their way down Hanover Street and it seems as though a festival's on, it can be a bit of a shock to open Tresca's menu and realize that only three of the entrees are under $30.

Tresca mostly delivers. The flavors are lush and concentrated, the main-course portions very generous, and the wine list deep in big red Italian vintages. The place, which shares some of the ownership and cooking staff from its predecessor, got a modest remodeling, mostly in the downstairs, where the bar seating was enlarged, long windows opened to the street, and the awkward lounge converted into dining space. And the idiosyncratic dress rules -- Via Valverde reservationists used to greet callers with admonitions about proper attire -- have been swept away.

The waitstaff, too, seems less formal and more relaxed, though attentive and fairly quick. The place can even deliver celebrities -- at least a sports celebrity, anyway. On a recent night, one of the owners, hockey great Ray Bourque, is eating there with his family.

Greg Weinstock, who had been Via Valverde's chef, and Jason Tucker, who has cooked at Great Bay, the former Trattoria Scalinatella, and started out at Mamma Maria, are sharing chef duties. Tucker, in a phone interview, explains that the owners wanted the meat and seafood dishes to be memorable. Tresca manages to fulfill that mission intermittently.

An antipasto plate is described on the menu as intriguing, but even though the slices of salami and prosciutto, the slivers of cheese, olives, and vinegared vegetables are abundant and in good shape, there's nothing unusual on the platter. A multicolored beet salad with arugula and crumbled goat cheese is pretty to see and tasty to eat, but it's a dish repeated on almost every menu across the city. However, Tucker's little appetizer tart of tender pastry topped with chunks of lobster and wilted arugula in a bechamel sauce is buttery, rich, and irresistible. Definitely memorable.

So are several pasta dishes. Wide pappardelle noodles often come with meat and tomato sauces. Here the pasta floats in a mushroom-studded broth flecked with bits of red chard and dusted with a little truffle powder. The result is a light pasta dish, fleetingly woodsy and an instance when "intriguing" might have been the apt description. Ravioli filled with ricotta is sauced with a sweet pea puree. It balances delicacy with vibrant late-spring flavors. A risotto combines beautifully made short-grain rice with big chunks of lobster. The risotto ingredients are good and the technique fine, but a little more restraint with cheese would have allowed the expensive Vialone Nano risotto and shellfish to shine.

Less works better, too, in the main courses. A few, such as a cioppino (or fish stew), are voluptuous with ingredients but very straightforward in taste. The tomato-saffron broth brims with shrimp, clams, mussels, and chunks of white fish, its flavor heightened by pesto that's been slathered on a toasted crostini tucked into the side of the bowl. Other dishes strip down the accompaniments to focus on the main event. Veal porterhouse rachets up the effect of a veal chop, the darling of many a big eater, by doubling the pleasure with its extra strip of meat. Simply seasoned and grilled, the meat is perfectly tender, mild, and delicious. An accompaniment of broccoli rabe with its punchy bitterness drizzled with olive oil accentuates the meat's flavor. A hefty 18-ounce ribeye steak has a fittingly more mature taste and benefits from a modest amount of red wine sauce. The best is a rack of lamb, fine meat carefully roasted to be just pink and moistly tender. With it, a semolina dumpling laced with pecorino cheese and a mildly garlicky basil puree add interest and texture without interfering with the lamb.

Care with most of these proteins is apparent, making a dish of striped bass and clams in a tomato and seafood broth an anamoly. It sounds great from the menu description -- fish and shellfish in a broth accented with salty, sharp capers and saffron. And those bright, sharp elements are all there and work well together. That makes it even more disappointing that the fish was overcooked.

For years, meals in the North End ended right here, as the proprietors hustled you out, suggesting one of the many surrounding cafes, since many didn't serve dessert or even espresso. But as the restaurants have gotten more elaborate, dessert has become more common to round out a meal. Tresca's zabaglione, an ethereal fluff of eggy custard, makes a lovely ending to a rich meal, and there is plenty to choose from with the sorbet and gelato offerings. Tucker says a new dessert menu and a pastry chef, Adam Williams, have just been added. And the espresso is excellent.

Tresca's high points -- good ingredients, careful cooking, and rich flavors -- can make it stand out in a fiercely competitive neighborhood. But for the prices, all those elements have to work together consistently. As its celebrity owner could attest, stellar performances each time, each night give you star power.


Cuisine: Italian

Address: 233 Hanover St., Boston (North End)

Phone: 617-617-8240

Hours: Dinner: Sun-Thurs 5-10:30 p.m., Fri -Sat 5-11 p.m.

Prices: Antipasti $12-$15, pasta $18-$26, main courses $26-$36, desserts $7-$14.

May We Suggest: Antipasti - Savory tart with lobster, greens. Pasta - Ricotta ravioli with green garlic and sweet pea puree.
Main courses - Roasted rack of lamb, pecorino dumpling, herb puree. Dessert - Zabaglione with blueberry mint puree.

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