Appropriately, the highlight of Pulcinella Mozzarella Bar e Ristorante is its namesake.
The restaurant serves three kinds of mozzarella: traditional buffalo (made with the milk of water buffalo), smoked mozzarella, and burrata, a plump purse of the cheese crammed with full-fat cream. Put together your own antipasto platter with any of these.
Owner and chef Giovanni Oliva opened Pulcinella Mozzarella Bar in the North End last August (he also owns Trattoria Pulcinella in Cambridge). The idea in the North End is that mozzarella, cured meats, vegetables, savory nibbles like dark olives, and crusty bread can be more engaging than a traditional dinner. But the chef also offers entrees and dessert, so the antipasto can be an appetizer or your entire meal. And while the mozzarella bar works successfully, many of the entrees and pastas do not.
Pulcinella Mozzarella Bar sits in a tight rectangle of North End real estate. White walls, a gray marble floor, and dark wood tables give the space, which seats about 40, a sleek, modern look without the warmth of a homey trattoria. The bar has only four stools, next to tall windows that look out onto Salem Street. On a weekend night, the room is lively and loud, but not deafening.
If you’re ordering the mozzarella antipasto, decide on the kind of cheese or better yet, try all three. Then figure out the cured meats: prosciutto, salami, mortadella, speck, porchetta, bresaola, and order vegetables like grilled eggplant, roasted tomatoes, sautéed mushrooms, black olives, red peppers, and beets glazed with balsamic vinegar.
When the platter arrives, the result is a riot of color and flavors, centered around two white, fist-size mounds of buffalo mozzarella and burrata. Triangles of thickly cut smoked mozzarella are tucked into the corners. Traditional mozzarella is tangy, the burrata is soft, light, and creamy, and bites of smoked mozzarella deliver nuttier tastes. The cheeses have been sitting out since the morning, so you get them at room temperature, which brings out the best flavors.
Blood-red folds of rich Parma prosciutto, sliced leaf thin, and pink slices of porchetta nestle between the cheeses. A fat chunk of mortadella, studded with pistachios, is mild and soft. Salami slices burst with heavy, full-fat saltiness. Piles of vegetables dot the plate. Green drizzles of olive oil and inky balsamic snake over everything.
Earthy, sauteed crimini mushrooms set you up for the next delivery of fat. Sugary slabs of peppers complement the milky sweetness of the cheese. Smear a scoop between two slices of salami in a mini sandwich, mix in some mushrooms and smoky red peppers, or build yourself a burrata and vegetable bruschetta.
Olivia imports the cheeses from Naples. Meat purveyors include Seattle’s Salumi Artisan Cured Meats (owned by Mario Batali’s father, Armandino) and Cre-minelli Fine Meats in Salt Lake City.
You can dine on that platter or have a more conventional dinner beginning with an appetizer. The best of the starters is stuffed zucchini blossoms, wrapped with mozzarella, breaded, and fried. When they arrive on a bed of greens, they look like two croquettes. Cut them open and warm cheese oozes out.
A Pulcinella salad — mixed greens, tomatoes, shavings of buffalo mozzarella, olives — is mesclun with a little bite from arugula, dressed with a generous splash of olive oil and balsamic.
But where the antipasto rocks, the entrees plod. Veal piccata and pork tenderloin in a pomegranate sauce both sound appealing. Lemony juices with capers on the small serving of piccata seem promising, until a bite of the meat reveals that this thin cut is dry and overcooked. A sweet pomegranate glaze with the pork doesn’t help meat that should have come off the fire sooner.
Ragu di nonna, a dish of pasta, sauce, sausage, and veal suffers from the same problem. Twists of farfalle are al dente and tasty in a sweet, garlicky tomato sauce. Sweet Italian sausage, from Di Paolo & Rossi Meat Market several storefronts away on Salem Street, is well-seasoned and snaps with freshness. But a lean and skinny strip of veal, curled from overcooking, requires concentrated chewing.
A user-friendly gnocchi alla sorrentina, with tomato sauce, comes out of the dish with long strands of melted mozzarella. Ravioli stuffed with spinach and buffalo mozzarella is al dente, but the pasta is lost under a blanket of heavy tomato sauce thickened with mascarpone. An intensely garlicky linguini con vongole in white sauce overpowers the clams; there’s also too much olive oil.
The main dish that shines is a thick, liberally salted veal chop, crusty on the outside, pink and juicy within. It comes with a bright, lively marsala sauce, a creamy mash, and bitter collard greens. The bone demands to be gnawed.
The meal picks back up at dessert, especially with chocolate mocha budino, a dish of dark Valrhona chocolate pudding with a spot of cream on top. The budino is creamy and light but intense with chocolate.
The grazing opportunities at Pulcinella are endless, and turn into a satisfying meal. Multiple little dishes is the way to eat here.