Refashioning a seasoned family legacy

By Jane Dornbusch
Globe Correspondent / November 4, 2009

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WATERTOWN - Bostonians have long memories. Mention Joyce Chen, and you’ll hear plenty of reminiscences about the legendary Chinese chef and restaurateur, whose eponymous restaurant closed a decade ago. We still claim the late Julia Child, who left her Cambridge home in 2001, as one of our own. And Franco and Margaret Romagnoli are fondly remembered for their cutting edge approach to Italian food - despite the fact that their PBS show, “The Romagnolis’ Table,’’ left the airwaves in the mid-1970s and their Faneuil Hall restaurant of the same name shut its doors in 1989.

Those who recall the Romagnolis will be able to sample their culinary style once again - through the work of their daughter, Anna, who has just opened the shop La Romagnoli and Son on Mt. Auburn Street, near where she was raised (on Garfield Street, and she also spent some of her childhood in Rome). “I’ve got to tell you, so many people have walked in and said, ‘I feel the spirit of your parents,’ ’’ says Romagnoli, as she’s working to get the shop up to speed. “A ton of people remember them.’’ Margaret Romagnoli died in 1995, Franco last December.

Anna added “son’’ to the name because she’s a single mom and excited about the involvement of 9-year-old Paulo Hidalgo Romagnoli. She describes the shop as “a cross between a salumeria and an alimentari.’’ A salumeria in Italy is where you go for cured meats and other delicatessen items; an alimentari is more of a grocery shop. Romagnoli plans to offer an array of imported meats and cheeses, a deli case full of prepared foods, olives, and antipasti, sauces by the pint, fresh pasta by the pound, dishes such as lasagna and ravioli, and, she says, “a killer sandwich.’’

Not all the offerings are available now. Over the next couple of weeks, the entrepreneur is working her way into a full menu, with a “grand opening’’ slated for Nov. 16. The little shop, on a bustling stretch of commerce full of ethnic shops and restaurants, is spare but inviting, with signage so modest and tasteful the place could easily be overlooked. Inside, first-time visitors may be surprised to find the chef at work right there. The open kitchen is located to one side, and customers can watch the food being prepped before a large stove holding several cauldrons of simmering sauce.

The limited selection of foods bodes well for the fuller operation. A zesty amatriciana sauce, served at home over pasta, is tangy and fresh-tasting; red clam sauce, full of Ipswich clams, is briny, lush, and a bit sweet. The addition of crumbled sausage nearly (but not quite) pushes a decadent, unctuous, creamy panna sauce over the top. Tuna and bean salad, with oil-packed tuna, kidney beans, and chickpeas, is well-balanced and full of flavor, and lentil soup with sausage is a thick, sturdy, nourishing bowl of comfort. And about that killer sandwich: The grilled chicken, cremini mushroom, fresh spinach, and fontina, on crusty bread from A. Russo and Sons in Watertown, is an oozy delight. Killer indeed.

The freshness and simplicity of the offerings reflects the Romagnoli legacy, which was authentic Italian food as Franco knew it from Italy. Those who remember the restaurant Romagnoli’s Table say it was groundbreaking in its day. Rich Barron, chef and owner of Il Capriccio in Waltham, says, “They were right there at the beginning, when people first started to realize there was someone with a style and philosophy in the kitchen, not just slapping out the food.’’ He remembers the food as “clean and simple,’’ a revolutionary concept at a time when Italian food meant generic spaghetti and meatballs.

Anna Romagnoli worked for several years as chef at her parents’ restaurant, which was an outgrowth of the Romagnolis’ popular WGBH cooking show and cookbooks. “I learned a great deal from them. I was the chef at Faneuil Hall for its final years and had a wonderful, beautiful time, an amazing time.’’

Since then, she has earned an MBA and worked in food service. Most recently, she was laid off from Whole Foods Market in New York, where she was the regional educator for the tri-state area. The layoff gave her the impetus she needed to return to Boston. And she’s certain her parents would approve. “I keep wanting to call them and tell them to check it out,’’ she says. “I know they’d be proud.’’

La Romagnoli and Son, 584 Mt. Auburn St., Watertown, 617-393-0118.