Gennaro's 5 North Square Ristorante

A former tourist trap proves its worth
By ROBERT NADEAU  |  November 25, 2009
2.0 2.0 Stars

0911_genaro_main
SMART START The cold antipasto covers the expected bases, and then steals a couple more with wonderful prosciutto and Italian salami.

Gennaro’s 5 North Square Ristorante| 5 North Square, Boston | 617.720.1050 | open Sunday–Wednesday, noon to 10 pm; and Thursday–Sunday, noon–11 pm | MC, VI | Beer, wine, and cordials | No valet parking | Access up two steps from sidewalk level to some tables
The owners of Caffé Vittoria and the Florentine Cafe took over this venerable tourist trap that looks out on North Square a year ago, renamed it for their son last May, and quietly spiffed up the rooms and the menu. We're still talking red sauce, dried pasta, pictures of Venice, high-priced daily specials, and Frank Sinatra on the soundtrack. (Cape Verdean singer Cesaria Evora is on that tape, too.) But one of those specials might be osso bucco on saffron risotto. Meanwhile, the white-bean dip served with Italian bread has enough garlic to take care of a vampire-movie marathon, the H1N1 flu, and the entire North End. You talk about your garlic. Until you've had the white-bean spread at Gennaro's, you don't know what garlic is.

After that deliciously spicy start, the house masterpiece may be a little mound of eggplant Napoleon ($9), which I ordered only because the menu said it came with both pesto and marinara. When you can get two key sauces out of the way at the appetizer level, the sensible restaurant critic makes his move right there. The pesto was good for November, and the marinara good for any month of the year, but the star was eggplant layered with ricotta so nicely you could cut neat slices with a fork.

The cold antipasto ($10/ small; $12/large) covers the expected bases, and then steals a couple more with the sort of wonderful prosciutto and Italian salami that never seems to cross the Big Dig barrier. There are also delicate slices of fresh mozzarella, fontina, an aged ricotta salata, touched up with balsamic vinegar, and a small salad of grilled calamari that any top chef would envy. If you're looking for a little more lettuce in your salad, the insalata Caesar ($8) is a clean reading, with the anchovies whole and optional, and the garlic concentrated in the house-made croutons.

Of the entrées we tried, I most enjoyed the fettuccine carbonara ($18), even though the sauce was more Alfredo (creamy cheese sauce) than carbonara (bacon and eggs). Bacon, cheese, and peas are a rich combination, even — or maybe especially — on fully cooked pasta ribbons.

Risotto, however, is done crunchy. It's a little too salty when served under salmon piccata ($25), but was mellowed by a lemon gravy full of capers and some remarkable roast asparagus. Saffron risotto, which came with the special osso bucco ($35 — I warned you about the prices of off-menu options in the North End) was not over-salted, but didn't taste much like saffron, either. The clod of slow-cooked veal shank and its sauce of carrots and tomato were so wonderful, though, they could have flavored the risotto with pencil shavings and I still would have eaten every grain.

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