Review: Carmelina's

Old-style North End meets new-style cheffery
By ROBERT NADEAU  |  July 25, 2012
2.0 2.0 Stars

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CHEF'S SPECIAL Carmelina's offers a skilled remixing of Sicillian-American plates, such a this bay scallop risotto.

After a good run with "Italian tapas" under the name Damiano (a play on the given name of chef-owner Damien "Domenic" DiPaola), this space has been rechristened as Carmelina's — after the chef's mother and his first restaurant, opened when he was an undergraduate in Western Mass — and the menu reconfigured to feature more entrées. Buzz was that the food would be traditional Sicilian-American, but what I found on two visits was an uneven mix of old North End thinking and trained-chef skill, whether from DiPaola himself or Damiano holdover Michael Hollenkamp.

To start with good news, DiPaola has found a truly impressive Sicilian white wine for summer: Menfi La Segreta 2010 bianco ($10/glass; $30/bottle), a blend with 30 percent chardonnay for crispness and structure, a bit of viognier for aroma, and what seems like a hint of oak. Buy the bottle! You can take home what's left. The red version ($10/$30), built on nero d'avola grapes, is good table wine, but not as structured, and not as good as the house merlot ($8/$25), which had some acidity. The chianti classico on the list, Colombaio di Cencio ($10/$30), is softer but a little richer. On the other hand, the last glass ($20) of a 1997 Barolo was slightly turned, and had to be sent back.

My favorite appetizer was brought over from the menu at Damiano: baby eggplant ($12), now yuppified into a three-mount presentation, but still perfectly cooked Japanese eggplant with just enough tomato sauce and parmesan to keep you oriented to the idea of eggplant parm. "Mimmo's baked meatballs" ($9) aren't as clever as the tuna meatballs at Damiano, but they are exactly what you want: four racquetball-size orbs of flavor in a tomato sauce that might have been added prior to baking, plus some parmesan cheese.

Another standout is "BuonaBoca" ($12), two squares of deep-fried mozzarella stuffed with greens and sun-dried tomatoes. The process forms a crust like a toasted marshmallow, with meltingly delicious insides — and I am not ordinarily a sun-dried-tomato booster. Not-so-great, one night, was fried calamari ($12), which attained a truly crisp batter at the price of somewhat rubbery squid. This is a dish that actually works better if you put frozen breaded squid into the fry machine, because you either cook calamari for a minute or an hour. Fried pepper rings plump up the plate and wake up the palate.

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By Sicilian food, I am pretty sure that the chef meant something like "Sunday Macaroni" ($20), a frighteningly large bowl of ridgeless rigatoni topped with four meatballs, a couple of mild sausages, several deboned beef short ribs, and some whipped ricotta (because it isn't rich enough, right?). The gravy of the gravy meat surprised me by being real gravy, without tomato sauce. Now I'm not Sicilian, so maybe this is what DiPaola grew up on (and it was the sauce for Damiano's great maltagliati pasta dish), but when I got the inevitable leftovers home and reheated them with crushed tomatoes, I felt it was even better.

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