SOMERVILLE -- When we saw the new sign above the door at 400 Highland Ave. in Davis Square, we couldn't help but cringe. The address at this seemingly prime location has housed three restaurants in the past two years, and nothing seems to take. The last one even had good food.
This makes us worry for its newest tenant, Sagra, an Italian joint with a fresh coat of red paint on the walls and the smell of garlicky tomato sauce lingering in the air. Could the spot be jinxed -- haunted by the ghost of the dilapidated Chinese restaurant it once was? And how does a place like this shake off the failed businesses that came before it?
Thankfully, it's not our job to figure that out. Our job is to eat -- and gossip about our waitress's accent. Where could she be from, we kept wondering as she told us about the specials. She's Welsh, one guessed. Serbian, said another. Medford actress, a third suggested. Needless to say, none of us remembered a thing about the specials. We did, however, manage to order an appetizer platter, a highly fried mix of calamari, stuffed fried olives, creamy egg and cheese croquettes, delicious thin, fried potatoes, and bland arancini. The Sagra pizza, topped with fatty pancetta, was limp and chewy and quickly pushed aside.
The entrees treated us better. The beef short ribs with mushroom risotto were comforting, the gnocchi in duck ragu was rich and silky, and the garlicky lamb, served with an arugula, red pepper, and olive salad, was enjoyed by the members of our party who enjoy that kind of thing. The thick veal chop Milanese was fine, although it didn't seem sinful enough, and its spinach side was so salty it stung our taste buds. The rigatoni with sausage had a pleasant lemony twang but was in desperate need of something to meld the flavors together.
The table of women and babies beside us kept us entertained for a while, particularly the fake-blond mom with the plunging neckline, but the music, which had started out bouncy and Italian, devolved into some sort of dirge-like chant somewhere along the way. Two photographers were taking pictures behind us, and the steady stream of flashes from their cameras was even more distracting than the waitress's accent (she's from Italy, it turns out, but learned her English in Ireland).
We sampled all three desserts: the creamy tiramisu-like mattonella di Fiorella, Nutella bread pudding, and torta al vino, a cake made with white wine batter and whole grapes that reminded one of us of Fruit Loops. But our thoughts kept returning to the lemony ricotta cheese spread with olive oil and parsley that came with the bread. It's nice to see such delicious attention paid to an often overlooked element.
All in all, it was a satisfying meal. Former Bricco chef Rob DeSimone is in charge of the kitchen, and his menu is an extensive one. A sagra is an Italian food festival, after all, so it seems appropriate.
The owners don't seem concerned about the jinx of 400 Highland. They've brought in Italian jazz on Wednesday nights and Sinatra singer Rich DiMare on Sundays, and plan to expand to the second floor and open more locations. "We're going to be here for a long time," co-owner George Tavares assured us.
We hope he's right, but we'll be checking the sign every time we walk by, just in case.
Sagra, 400 Highland Ave., Somerville, 617-625-4200, sagrarestaurant.com. Entrees $9-$23; wine $6-$9 a glass.