Italian Express

Hiding in plain sight
By PHIL AMARA  |  June 22, 2006

ITALIAN EXPRESS: Drawing customers without reinventing the meatball.
East Boston may or may not be the city’s other North End, but it does have strong Italian flavor. Day Square is home to veterans like Mario’s and Jeveli’s; Central Square has Sonny Noto’s; Maverick Square has Santarpio’s, famous in these parts for its pizza. And Orient Heights has a trio of places — including the superb Zafferano — staring one another in the face.

So it comes as a surprise that, on the backside of the Heights T stop, Italian Express has battled the competition and found customers without reinventing the meatball. It’s a come-as-you-are, cost-conscious, comfort-food type of restaurant —serving the type of food you might find on your nana’s table. Home-style meatballs, served atop ravioli ($8.95) or as a lunchtime sub ($5.95), come bathed in rich tomato sauce. Buttery chicken Marsala ($10.50) comes with penne pasta, ham, sweet wine, and earthy mushrooms; and the Matteo ($11.95) is served with generous artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, garlic, and a choice of chicken, shrimp, or veal. Best of all, the mussel dishes, like the scampi and fra diavolo ($10.95), get persnickety attention. If the monger’s mussels aren’t up to snuff, Express won’t buy ’em, won’t cook ’em, and won’t serve ’em. Amen!

With Chianti-colored walls, tabletop candles, and a cozy layout, this cash-only spot has style that belies the name Express. With a hipper name, and Mission of Burma sizzling from the speakers (rather than Andrea Bocelli), this place would clean up in Davis Square. Is the menu innovative? No. But neither is it self-important. Express gives its customers time-tested mainstays without the metrosexual sheen.

Italian Express, 1045 Saratoga Street, East Boston | Tue– Sat, 11 am-10 pm; Sun, 3-9 pm | 617.561.0038.

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