PASTA PERFECT At Gennaro's, chef Marisa Iocco puts a classy twist on Italian-American favorites,like this veal saltimbocca.
In year of bad restaurant ideas (often done well), this the worst idea — and best meal — yet. Gennaro's, a perfectly nice two-star red-sauce restaurant with old North End charm all around, hired chef Marisa Iocco, a true daughter of Abruzzo, and set her to creating a menu that "pays homage to the soulful hominess and evocative flavors of Italian-American cooking." Given that Iocco has only been in the US since 1990, and spent most of that time running top-notch kitchens (Galleria Italiana, La Bettola, South End Galleria, Bricco, Umbria, Mare, and Spiga), isn't this kind of like hiring a master chef from Guangdong to jazz up the pu-pu platter at Charlie Chan's?
Iocco apparently cannot produce an inferior dish even when paying homage, and thus what I remember of the old North End you will not find here: no reheated pasta, no caramelized tomato sauces cooked all day, no spumoni with claret sauce for dessert, no white bread and butter to begin. Likewise, although she has created a "gravy meat" and pasta dinner for four, Iocco is not riding the wonderful excess of the mandatory Italian-American Sunday family feast. What she mostly does is pretend that Italian-Americans used to eat like the most discerning gourmets in southern Italy do now.
The bread basket — featuring real crusty stuff — does give some props to the old school by mixing the now-obligatory extra-virgin olive oil with grated parmesan cheese and pepper. This is a new twist, but it evokes the old bread and butter, and the third shaker on the table was grated cheese of surprising quality.
After that, I worked pretty hard to catch Iocco out, and couldn't pick up a patronizing note. Side linguine on veal saltimbocca ($24)? Fresh pasta, al dente, like has never been on the side of anything in Boston before. The veal itself was delightful, although prosciutto and cheese overtook the classic fresh sage of the dish.
"Marisa's marinara" as a dip on fried calamari ($13)? Clean as a whistle, no metallic hint of tomato paste, surprisingly rich flavor for a quick sauce. The fried calamari (with rings of banana pepper) were only somewhat fresher and crisper out of the kitchen than usual.
All-beef meatballs ($19) are allowed to influence that marinara, but Iocco must have drawn the line at putting them on spaghetti. There are toasts for dipping provided, along with five racquetball-size (a size halfway between golf and tennis) meatballs and some really excellent grated cheese.
After that, the chef really hit her stride. An order of vegan raviolotti ($20) should be sponsored by PETA. The contrast of crunchy greens and a little fresh basil inside perfect pasta, once tasted, could close the stockyards. Chitarra amatriciana ($16), a dish associated with Abruzzo, is here done with whole wheat pasta, fresh and hand-cut into roughly square spaghetti — I've never had whole-grain pasta this good. The sauce is an elegant toss of fresh cherry tomatoes, olive oil, and crisp pancetta (unsmoked bacon) cubes.