The way the present economy is playing out, a lot of small restaurants are now taking over larger and more expensive spaces. This can work out well, if the individuality of the chef and menu doesn’t get watered down. Copia, son of Prezza, was still working out its identity when I reviewed it. But Sasso, where the owners of the fine North End restaurant Lucca have jumped into the defunct Blackfin Chop House’s vast space, is a bolder and more successful attempt, albeit one with a little hesitation in the entrées. The dramatic duplex has not required much work: they simply painted over the nautical blues and blacks with Tuscan yellows and crimsons, installed tall lanterns where the boat lamps used to be, and raised the entrée prices by $6 to $8. I’m not sure that last detail is quite what people are looking for in an upscale Italian restaurant, but splurgers will not go home disappointed. Sasso is a fine restaurant, indeed.
This is first evident from the bread basket, which features slices of an enticing loaf with lots of crisp crust, a soft interior, and just enough salt on the surface. If you can’t wait for a dish with sauce, there is a superior, fruity extra-virgin olive oil with white-bean paste neatly piped in.
My favorite appetizer was coniglio ($15): shredded rabbit confit over creamy polenta with a wild mushroom (mostly black trumpets) “ragout.” The shrimp appetizer ($16) featured sweet little Maine rock shrimp served with garlic, à la scampi, mixed with half-inch cubes of gnocchetti.
A Jonah crab salad ($19) is presented as a modern cylinder of shredded crab meat, celery root, and apple — a slaw that emphasizes the crab flavor quite well. The insalata mista ($12) is mostly arugula, with some other field greens and a scant, but effective, dressing.
Recently expanded restaurants tend to introduce Italian menus as a sort of security blanket. But Prezza, which is already an Italian restaurant, tried to broaden its appeal at Copia by emphasizing steaks and chops. Lucca, which leans toward nouvelle-American cuisine, made both adjustments at Sasso. The restaurant’s owners kept Blackfin’s steaks and chops, but have moved toward the Italian side of haute cuisine.
One terrific result is the obligatory lobster dish, aragosta ($36), here done with half of a small lobster’s meat removed from the shell and served on a platter of seriously al dente spaghetti with a creamier carbonara sauce and peas.
Sasso also makes a terrific sirloin steak ($42; $36/tenderloin), served medium-rare as ordered, with a perfect parmesan-truffle risotto and an order of bittersweet broccoli rabe ($8/as a side dish.)
The kitchen seemed to be more tentative when preparing sogliola ($30), a dish of sole rolled around a “baccala root vegetable purée.” The idea makes sense. After all, New England’s winter flounder is a bland white fish, and the classic salt cod/root vegetable purée is brandade de morue: a whipped Provençal spread of salt cod, olive oil, and potatoes. Brandade, however, tastes like salt cod, and has a gamey, salty flavor that would perk up these flounder rolls. The stuffing that I had, tasted as if all the life had been soaked out it. The side dish of sautéed escarole with a lemony parsley purée, though, was exquisite — stuff that into the sole, if the kitchen doesn’t trust the public with actual salt cod.
On a similar note, the roast chicken ($28) has a whiff of condescension to it, as though the kitchen assumes only timid people would order chicken in restaurants. Haven’t they read that chefs test each other by ordering roast chicken? This was a fine dish, but the breast was slightly overdone, the skin wasn’t crisp, the whipped potatoes with olive oil were pretty plain, the “Marsala reduction” was a gloopy gravy, and the side of baby spinach was rather basic. It’s okay to have a plain dish on the menu for those with bland palates, but it’s not okay to charge $28 and not do your best.
The wine list is about half Italian and very nicely selected, with lots of great glasses. My favorite was the 2003 Donna Laura Chianti Classico “Bramosia” ($9), a wall-of-fruit experience with enough structure to improve over the next few years. It completely outshone the 2004 Michele Chiarlo Barbera d’Asti ($10), a perennial favorite on the Lucca list, but presently too young and closed up. On the white side, don’t miss the 2004 St. Michael-Eppan pinot bianco ($10). The Alpine regions of Italy delivered this terrific wine, light but with a slightly floral nose. All the wines showed well with modest pours in oversize glasses.
Desserts at Sasso returned to the superb level of the appetizers. You must order the soufflé of the day in advance, and you may want to order two of them. Our day it was pistachio ($12), and while it wasn’t powerfully pistachio, it was a great soufflé: sweet and eggy, with some crème Anglaise for added richness.
Chocolate cake ($11) was flourless, of course, and fashionably underdone. But the dish was sent to another level by its pairing with blackberry ice cream, a rich gelato that evoked the idea of chocolate and then surprised with fruit flavor.
Zabaglione ($10) is whipped sweet custard on a plate of seasonal berries — great now, even better in the spring. And white-chocolate peanut-butter terrine ($11) sounds dreadful, but it turned out that it captured the richness of peanut butter without being overwhelmed by the peanut flavor. This slab has a texture halfway between mousse and fudge, and a flavor that’s neither chocolate nor peanut, but a compromise not far from hazelnut.
Service at Sasso was flawless — not easy in such a large space. Big spaces are dramatic, but they can be loud, drafty, airport-like disasters. Sasso’s design avoids most of those problems without overplaying the common conceit of eating outdoors in Italy. You get the lanterns, but not the false doorways or pergolas.
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Robert Nadeau: RobtNadeau@aol.com