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A family spot in Winthrop

Posted by Sheryl Julian  February 4, 2011 04:44 PM

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In our ongoing series of Cheap Eats finds around the city, producer Glenn Yoder sent this in.


It's a goal for many restaurants that only a select few achieve: make the place feel like home. Alia Ristorante in Winthrop, offering Mediterranean-Italian cuisine on Boston Harbor, pulls it off.


This is a long way from the Olive Garden and its half-hearted "When you're here, you're family" motto. Alia is truly a community restaurant, with local owner Said Lahyani walking to work, welcoming familiar faces, and often seating customers himself before hopping into the kitchen. He enjoys special requests. "What are you hungry for tonight, sweetheart?" he asks a woman dining with friends. If you're not certain what you want, he's got a few off-kilter suggestions, usually relying on the restaurant's supply of fresh seafood.


On a recent visit, I eased away from my standard Italian order -- chicken broccoli ziti with a light cream sauce -- after Lahyani highlighted a newer item: gnocchi di casa. After nearly filling up on warm bread dipped in spicy olive oil and a salad in light vinaigrette, we get the gnocchi, which comes with chicken, sun-dried tomatoes, and caramelized onions, all in a creamy pesto. The gnocchi are moist and tender, the juicy chicken a nice complement. But it’s the caramelized onions that make the dish; they’re some of the sweetest I've ever tasted, and tie all the flavors together.


Across the table, my date enjoys chicken Parmesan: a not-too-sweet, not-too-spicy red sauce over an enormous, tender piece of breaded chicken and slightly al dente ziti.


We split a bottle of red wine (it's BYOB, but there is a liquor store within a minute's walk) and listen to Middle Eastern from a stereo behind the counter. The decor is simple, the lighting dim and romantic.


Towards the end of the meal, Lahyani tops off our wine glasses and pulls up a chair. We spend 20 minutes chatting about the recent snow, his plan to expand his presence on the block by opening another restaurant two doors down, and of course, his family. We feel like part of it.


Alia Ristorante, 495 Shirley St., Winthrop, 617-539-1600.

About Dishing

What's cooking in the world of food.


Sheryl Julian, the Globe's Food Editor, writes regularly for the Food section.

Devra First is the Globe's food reporter and restaurant critic. Her reviews appear weekly in the Food section.

Ellen Bhang reviews Cheap Eats restaurants for the Globe and writes about wine.

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