Maybe it takes an Albanian owner-chef to capture the tone and flavors of a trattoria in Tuscany. I certainly haven’t felt this close to the lingering lunches of northern Italy since Dona Franca (a real Tuscan) closed Il Bico (now the site of Petit Robert Bistro). Of course, Zamir Kociaj, the owner-chef in question, worked in Tuscan restaurants from age 18, so he is quite fluent in his second culinary language.
We begin with fruity extra-virgin olive oil, perhaps even Tuscan, although laced with herbs and a few drops of balsamic vinegar. It is a wonderful dip for the soft, crusted Italian bread, but don’t over-starch here, since the menu is focused on pasta (and devoid of seafood — oddly, since it’s Umbria that is landlocked, not Tuscany).
Among the appetizers, I was hit hardest by the simple crostini misti ($8), so typical of North Italian meals, but never seen here. It’s just four toasts, each with a different topping: chicken liver paté ($7.50/on its own platter), very strong pesto, mushroom sausage, and olives with some kind of seafood, perhaps sardines or anchovies. I was also struck by ribolita Toscana ($6.50), a rich bread-bean soup Dona Franca used to serve, here with a few added potatoes, perhaps the only visible Albanian influence. The prosciutto di Parma appetizer ($12.50) was the real deal, with fresh mozzarella nuggets and grape tomatoes — the only winter tomatoes worth the name — as well as field greens. Insalata di faro ($8) features the large-grained primitive wheat in something like a chewier tabouli, again with the grape tomatoes, the field greens, and the terrific olive oil to carry the dish.
Main dishes might begin and end with tagliatelli al’ ragu Toscano ($13), a brilliant use of the wide-ribbon pasta in a tomato-inflected sauce of pork sausage, beef, and a few porcini mushrooms. It’s perhaps a little too salty. Pasta del Buongiustaio ($12.50) was perfectly al dente bowties with bacon, grape tomatoes, truffle oil, and a few mushrooms to provide the visual clue for the aroma of the truffle oil. Another great pasta dish.
A special on wild boar ($22) was of course farmed boar, and with a red-wine marinade was not much different than similarly overdone brisket, which is to say, terrific. Underneath was grilled polenta, creamy enough that the grilling may have been counterproductive. A simpler foil to a richly flavored meat-with-sauce might have worked even better. This was the one dish where we missed our undelivered side of zucchini ($4).
The wine list is all Italian and, miraculously, mostly under $30. Espresso-based drinks like macchiato ($2.25) and even decaf cappuccino ($2.95) had the good, bitter bite of the Italian originals. It’s customary to add sugar.
Desserts aren’t much. Our night they were down to tiramisu ($5.50), well flavored with hints of chocolate and coffee but not so much liqueur as usual, so a little dry despite real whipped cream; and strawberries and cream ($5.50), seasonally mediocre. The west Fenway has restaurants (and nowhere to park legally other than a poorly attended garage on Queensbury Street) but not the dessert scene that allows North End restaurants to neglect this key course.