Grotto | 37 Bowdoin Street | 617.227.3434
If you’re not careful as you totter down the steep slope of Bowdoin Street, you might miss Grotto’s unobtrusive basement space. That would be a shame: with its deep-red walls, glowing candlelight, surreal artwork, and closely spaced tables, it’s a bit of the East Village on Beacon Hill. The service, like the crowd, is casual; the wine list unremarkable. But much of the Italian-inspired food here is generously portioned and rather rich, including a nightly $35 three-course prix fixe, which seems decadent for its bargain prices. It would take an extraordinary appetite to demolish the heaping housemade potato gnocchi with short ribs and gorgonzola, a gentle assault of unctuous, concentrated flavors. Lighter dishes, such as grilled shrimp, octopus, and squid with white beans in a Sicilian EVOO/lemon/garlic sauce, are also beautifully executed. Dim lighting and dark corners make Grotto suitable for illicit trysts, a place to sit close and share. And the restaurant periodically holds an event that any self-styled Boston gourmand must attend at least once: a recreation of the climactic feast from the beloved food movie Big Night, an ecstatic extravaganza of five courses that feel like 12.
Domani Bar & Trattoria | 51 Huntington Avenue | 617.424.8500
Domani Bar & Trattoria
The Back Bay may have good shopping, but its restaurants are mostly unmemorable, surviving on patio trade, lunching office drones, and businesspeople entertaining clients. It can be miserable for locals seeking a tasty yet reasonably priced dinner. One islet in this sea of mediocrity is Domani, a smallish, sleek New Italian joint hidden on an awkward stretch of Huntington Avenue in the Copley Square Hotel. Talented chef Rene Michelena sometimes appears distracted by his multiple hats (e.g., making lounge snacks for downstairs nightclub Saint), but at Domani, his focus recently sharpened with a new, nightly $35 prix fixe. This bolsters a bar menu of small plates, like a brace of Kobe-beef sliders, a trio of unpretentious housemade sausages (including a delicious Greek-inspired lamb number), and thin-crusted pizzetta with soppressata. If only the few other Back Bay chefs with a similarly subtle touch in the kitchen were so attentive to budget-conscious locals.
Trattoria Toscana | 130 Jersey Street | 617.247.9508
Few American owners of so-called trattorias seem to have any idea what the word means. Albanian-born, Tuscan-trained chef/owner Zamir Kociaj does: his place is casual, friendly, simply decorated, modestly priced, and focused on neighborhood trade. Better still, his evocation of Tuscan cuisine, in all its exalted simplicity, is note-perfect. The Tuscan fundamentals of EVOO, legumes, un-salted coarse white bread, high-quality salumi, offal, and simply roasted meats underpin hallowed standbys such as ribollita (bread-thickened bean soup), crostini with chicken-liver pâté, and Florentine-style stewed tripe. Pastas, including penne alla carrettiere (with pancetta, garlic, and hot peppers) and rigatoni alla norcina (with sweet Italian sausage, soffrito, and cream), while not explicitly Tuscan, are also glorious. You know the boss is cultivating repeat business when he visits tableside to dissuade you from ordering costly Italian wines — he favors the $18 carafe of red (which is indeed a lovely quaffer). This is near perfection in a neighborhood joint, and one of my favorites at any price level.