HEAD NORTH: La Brace Italian Grille, in the North End, is splendid.
La Brace is a small, splendid North End restaurant featuring grilled foods with just enough red sauce to satisfy the neighborhood. It’s sparsely decorated, a nice contrast to the traditional Italian restaurant Rococo, and yet strongly rooted in Italian foodways. Chef Mark Fredette came over from Mare, so I expected some fine fish, and since La Brace means “hot coals,” it might well be grilled. There was, and it was.
We began (after bread with olive oil and balsamic vinegar) with calamari duetto ($13), a handsome rectangular plate with a heap of fried squid, as crisp and sweet as any in town, and a pair of small stuffed squid, lightly grilled. The stuffing was based on a homemade sausage mixture that didn’t overwhelm the casings; neither did a cold dip described as “arrabbiata” (angry) that was actually sweeter and smoother than hot or spicy. Grilled scallops ($13) brought three large sea scallops on another rectangular plate with a balsamic glaze, a light topping of chopped green olive I didn’t entirely like (too much like a pickle with the delicate scallops), and a small but perfect arugula salad. A “fall Caprese” salad ($15), however, had to strain to survive as a winter salad. The grape tomatoes were stewed with a little vinegar to get the maximum out-of-season flavor, and the fresh mozzarella was good, but the basil was down to shreds, and not very aromatic shreds at that.
I also had a half order of the risotto of the day ($9) as an appetizer, which was very, very good. It was flavored with sausage and some radicchio; and while this recipe was soupier and a little more al dente than mine, it was a delicious, lighter style that I may choose to copy. Gnocchi pomodoro ($14) was a simple but flawless tomato sauce on medium-light pillows of pasta, the apotheosis of comfort food.
Moving over to the grill, it’s hard to pass up the grigliata di mare ($27), a seafood mixed grill that changes daily. The night I tried it, it had two enormous shrimp (as perfectly grilled as shrimp can be), a flavorful piece of light fish (perhaps grouper), two nice chunks of salmon, and a slab of cuttlefish that was a bit chewy but fun to eat.
The striped bass ($26) here sets a new standard for farmed stripers. Fredette has skillfully boned the small fish so it can be wrapped around a stuffing of olive, tomato, and greens; then it’s artfully grilled and presented as a remarkably natural-looking stuffed-and-grilled fish (but no heads or fins, don’t worry). The side dish of lemony sautéed greens was also terrific.
On another visit, we had a special on baked grouper ($24), one of the most flavorful of all white-fleshed fish, here served as a square chunk over a broth of leeks and endives. I love leeks and I love endives, but cooked together they produce a slight fishiness that doesn’t complement this dish. I would suggest leeks and shaved turnip instead.
This said, anything grilled here is apt to be amazing, and you won’t want to miss the veal chop ($32). It’s a large loin chop with meat so flavorful that I’m sure this calf wasn’t penned cruelly. Plus, the Montreal-style pepper coating and impeccable grill work did honor to the animal’s memory. If I were veal, I would want to be served like this: on a remarkable slab of lightly grilled polenta enriched with cheese, with a side of broccoli rabe, sweet and bitter by turns.
I didn’t like the grilled rabe as a side order ($5), because, while grilled asparagus is a great innovation, grilled rabe seems to increase its bitterness.
The wine list at La Brace is mostly Italian and pretty good, especially the 2002 Montepulciano Marche Rosso Conero “San Lorenzo” ($8/glass; $34/bottle), a light red with enough acidity to complement fish dishes. The 2004 Barbera d’Asti “Panta Rei” ($42) is richer but less acidic, better for pastas and veal. The 2002 Rocca delle Macie Chianti ($8/$34) is a soft but effective Chianti. And a white vermentino ($8/$28) from Sardinia had intriguing nuances of orange flower, but had been made into too heavy a wine. I can imagine this being delightful in a local version with less alcohol and body.
Decaf coffee ($1.50) and even decaf cappuccino ($5) are well made, and La Brace breaks with North End tradition by offering a few desserts, although not very adventurous ones. Tiramisu ($8) is the usual square, but good, and the crème brûlée ($8) is among the better I’ve had. But cannoli ($8) are the best of all, with a fresh-fried shell and a lovely sweetened ricotta filling. These are the cannoli we keep ordering, remembering how good they can be.
Service at La Brace was good but perhaps a little obtrusive. It’s hard to draw a line between genuine friendliness and disruptiveness. Still, I would push toward privacy, as the loud-ish crowded room, the nostalgia of the wandering guitarist coming in on Saturday nights to play for tips, and the background music (from organ jazz to throbbing tenors) already tread somewhat on dinner conversation. Division of roles among the servers gives the impression of a larger staff than is probably there to serve 10 tables. And servers are pretty casual about how much of your order they take at a time, so the experience can be like a sushi bar, ordering a few morsels and glass of wine, maybe a couple dishes, maybe only one and then something else . . .
The room is gray-green and lemon-yellow, with a reddish-mahogany stain on the wood floor. One mostly looks through windows, out to the street, or into the semi-open kitchen, which seems to feature more grill than stove. There’s no noise or aroma from the kitchen, which makes it like an aquarium with human beings in it. I suppose the dining room seems like that to the cooks.
La Brace Italian Grille | 76 Salem Street, Boston | Open Mon–Thurs, noon–3 pm and 5–10 Pm; Fri, noon–3 pm and 5–11 pm; Sat, 5–11 pm; and Sun, 4–10 pm | AE, DI, MC, VI | Full bar | Validated parking at parcel 7 garage: $1 an hour for up to three hours | Access up two steps from sidewalk level | 617.523.8820
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Robert Nadeau: RobtNadeau@aol.com