GOING TO EXTREMES: The good is better and the bad is worse than Tartufo’s Newton counterpart.
The first Tartufo in Newton Centre was described as an attempt to reproduce the North End in the suburbs. It was that, with good red sauces, seafood, and homemade pasta — if you picked them carefully — but with expensive off-menu specials, overdone store-bought pasta, weak desserts, and small wineglasses. Tartufo at the Brickyard, which opened last summer, is the same story, only more extreme. The best seafood and homemade pasta we had were even better than at the Newton restaurant, but the low points were lower as well.
Even the space is both better and worse than the Newton version. It’s bigger and, in summer, will have outdoor seating looking across to Danehy Park. But it’s an odd, L-shaped, duplex-height room in a converted warehouse or factory. The restaurant has done its best with a trompe l’oeil mural of a stuccoed, Italian-restaurant exterior, so inside diners can imagine themselves outdoors in Italy, albeit in a place where blue indoor lamps are hung outdoors. If you look up, you’ll notice the heating ducts are painted blue, and there are bits of bare brick and beams showing here and there. Tables are arranged in a way that makes serving difficult; our server gave up and had us passing our own plates and glasses.
The bread is old North End white bread, added to American menus because customers expected bread with meals. It’s heated in an oven to improve it, and served with foil-wrapped butter and a bottle of olive oil, both good. But if you order grilled calamari ($9.95), you will be delighted. The chef has a unique trick of cutting the bodies into flower shapes and manages to get some char into the flavor, without overcooking them. With a side salad, this is excellent.
So are the meaty and generous — if fried too brown — crab cakes ($9.95), also served with a side salad and an order of butternut-squash ravioli ($14.95). The ravioli is spiced and granular winter squash inside homemade green pasta, with a silky-sweet sauce of butternut squash. This deconstruction of our pumpkin-pie flavors — sweet outside, spicy inside — works wonderfully.
The minestrone ($6.95) hasn’t much of a stock, but it isn’t a false soup base either, and the contents are real: three kinds of beans, two kinds of summer squash, barley, carrot, and tomato (as a vegetable, not dominating the stock).
Our best main dish was probably a risotto special with mixed seafood ($24.95). The rice was correctly done and the seafood — shrimp, scallops, and half of a chicken lobster — was all very good in a light red sauce. The lobster arrabiata ($15.95), with the other half of the small lobster, was a weaker dish but a good value: a red sauce without the proper Abruzzese dose of red pepper, and overdone linguine.
A dish of chicken pizzaiola ($14.95) was similarly below average. Boned chicken with cheese and ziti isn’t awful, but a red sauce that tastes overly sweet and concentrated like tomato paste is. Pork chops ($16.95) with roasted potatoes made for a solid platter, but not an extraordinary one. And a special on sole ($24.95) had aspects of excellence and disgrace on the same platter: a filet of fish that had sat around too long became sharp and a little fishy, yet it was served with nicely grilled shrimp and delicious mushrooms in a creamy red sauce.
Wines by the glass showed poorly in the small glasses and tasted as if they had been opened the night before. A cup of decaf ($1.50) was fresh but rather weak; the cappuccino and decaf cappuccino (both $3), however, were fine.
In the North End, not all restaurants have desserts, and some have only one or two. Tartufo has about six, including one called tartufo ($7), which means “truffle,” and is a kind of mocha-cream truffle with chocolate sauce. Torroncino ($7) is a tall confection with bits of brickle and nuts. Tiramisu ($7) is a square of the usual chocolate-coffee-liqueur trifle. And torta della Nonna ($7) is a rather heavy lemon pie to blame on grandma. The favorite dessert at our table, though, was lemon sorbet ($7), prettily frozen into a hollowed-out large lemon. I think this is actually made in Italy and flown here, but it’s still refreshing and delightful.
Service at Tartufo at the Brickyard is hard to classify, as it doesn’t get too crowded these winter days, even on a Saturday-night visit. Our server had a good Italian accent but medium skills with plates, and forgot water and spoons. She was either overworked or under-tipped, or perhaps a family member rather than hired help. Whatever the case, there was something not quite professional about her.
The atmosphere could be quite festive in the summer, given the outdoor seating and international-pop soundtrack in the background. In the winter, though, it’s a little isolated, like an Italian restaurant in a ski resort without snow. This area of North Cambridge is rather quiet after dark. The park across the street used to be the landfill, which used to be the dump. You would never know this if you didn’t look at a map, and ask yourself, what is a 50-acre park doing at one end of one of the most developed small regions in Greater Boston? It isn’t around a reservoir or gully or stony woods. In fact, there aren’t too many large trees at all. Hmm, too many hills for a meteor crater. Too large for a broken beaver dam. And the topography sort of rises from the edges to the middle. Yup, it’s a landfill, capped off with construction debris from the Red Line extension.
Tartufo At The Brickyard | 90 Sherman Street, Cambridge | Open Mon–Thurs, 11 am–9:30 pm; and Sat & Sun, 4–10 pm | AE, DC, MC, VI | Full bar | No valet parking | Street-level access | 617.441.0400
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Robert Nadeau: RobtNadeau@aol.com