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New England Regional | Tastes and Tables

High Italian

Exquisite regional Italian cuisine in Boston's North End

September-October 2005

In general, Italian food has been so thoroughly assimilated into the American diet that it no longer counts as “ethnic” fare. Pizza and spaghetti are as mainstream as burgers and fries. Meanwhile, every few years, a new immigrant like focaccia, gelato, or bruschetta begins making its way from Ellis Island to the heartland. Perhaps it takes a sumptuous Italian restaurant like Mamma Maria to remind us of the varied regional cuisines of a culture that takes eating as seriously as it does opera.

Located on a romantic, cobblestoned square in Boston’s North End, Mamma Maria occupies a nineteenth-century brick row house and has five dining rooms, one of which, the Piccolo Room, has only a single table that seats four (with a fine view). Valet parking ($14) is essential. We were seated near mullioned windows that look out onto Paul Revere’s onetime residence. The décor includes touches like Italian spatterware plates on the walls, and gives a feeling of restful elegance.

In a second-floor dining room at Mamma Maria, mullioned windows ook out over the cobblestoned North Square.
Courtesy of Mamma Maria

Attention to details always augurs well for a meal out: a fresh, splendid salad foretells an excellent main course. Here, the rustic bread arrived not with the ubiquitous EVOO (extra virgin olive oil) but with olives themselves and a crock of classic pesto that, blessedly, was not overly garlicky. We sipped glasses of Napa cabernet/merlot blend ($14) and a flinty Tuscan Calcinaie Vernaccia ($10) with the lobster tortella appetizer ($16), a lovely dumpling-like creation served with a pancetta and grilled asparagus garnish.

Two asterisks on the menu marked the seasonal dishes, like the red bell pepper and tomato soup with Maine shrimp ($10.50). (Mamma Maria cleaves to local ingredients—especially in preparing sea­food dishes like the shellfish-based cacciucco from Positano.) The soup was embellished with oyster mushrooms, which offered contrast both in taste and texture to the tomato base. A fava-bean salad ($12) arrived in a cylindrical Parmesan toile; this miniature silo, broken into pieces, crunched deliciously against the beans’ springy texture.

Mamma Maria

3 North Square
North End, Boston
617-523-0077
www.mammamaria.com
Dinner nightly, 5-10;
Friday and Saturday, 5-11.
Reservations suggested.
Valet parking available.

We bypassed the restaurant’s signature dish, the Milanese ossobuco ($35) in favor of a moist, truffle-scented veal rib chop ($33). It arrived with a heavenly sunshine-yellow polenta—ideal in texture, neither grainy nor smooth —and crisp broccolini sautéed with garlic. A Tuscan-style wild mushroom ravioli ($26) mingled a selection of exotic fungi inside delicate sheets of fresh pasta. Paired with a glass of Coltibuono Sangiovese ($8), this dish recalled a leisurely summer luncheon I once ate in a remote Tuscan castle, with three layers of white tablecloths beneath heavy flatware.

Service here is low-key and impeccable. The presentations had brio, and the portions were agreeably midsized, demanding neither a second dinner elsewhere nor a postprandial oxygen mask. We had ordered à la carte, but were intrigued by two popular prix fixe “Chef’s Menus,” at $35 and $55, which tantalized us with delights that, like Italy herself, fairly cried out for a return visit.     

~C.L.