Another week, another second or third restaurant by a famous chef (Jamie “Mistral” Mammano) focused on a single cuisine (Italian), with a more-junior chef (John Delpha) at the controls. Mostly I like these restaurants, and I often find them better than the originals because they are off the cutting edge and more consistent. This time, despite liking Mammano’s Teatro quite a lot, I’m underwhelmed.
Part of the problem is just the rent at Trinity Place, the luxury development that swallowed the previous restaurant in the space, the overhyped fusion palace Salamander. There is something worth noting about the high-end customers who eat in all the new and expensive restaurants and then move on to the newer and even-more-expensive restaurants: they are collectors. To get them to come back when the buzz moves on, you have to really have something. What Salamander had was an amazingly beautiful and even distracting decorative scheme. But this wasn’t enough of a magnet. The first smart decision at Sorellina was to dismantle Salamander and lower the visual temperature with black, white, and dark-brown panels and stripes; gray curtains; and simpler geometric lamps. There’s also somewhat less noise (despite background electronica) now. Another shrewd decision was to go to the more-familiar Italian food, albeit fancified, deconstructed, and priced to pay the rent. To make it even easier on the young and well-heeled, the service isn’t too formal.
(If you’re not part of the crowd that goes to every new restaurant, you may have a hard time finding the place. One Huntington Avenue is actually not the address of the restaurant, but of the residential part of the building. The restaurant entrance is really in the minus numbers on Huntington, or on Blagden Street, the alley behind the Boston Public Library and the Copley Hotel. That’s also where you have to go to get valet parking. But if you want the wheelchair ramp, it’s back around to minus-one Huntington Avenue.)
When you pay this much, every deconstructed ingredient better be somewhat amazing. A few things at Sorellina are, but most aren’t. One amazing appetizer is an “exotic mushroom” soup ($12), frothed up like a cappuccino. It is wonderful to eat frothed milk with the delightful, woodsy flavor of porcini, with slightly creamy and garlicky broth below. But an appetizer of tripe ($12), although served in a rustic cast-iron bowl, is refined to the point of pointlessness. Now, I wasn’t expecting chitlins in a fancy room like this, but Italians have some very clever ways with the gelatinous textures of tripe. Yet this was just a casserole of spaghetti-sauce ingredients (the tomatoes were supposed to be smoked) and flavors, with an occasional gelatinous morsel. Likewise, a salad of greens, Gorgonzola, and bacon ($12) was served in a giant soup bowl that only emphasized an overdressed heap of chopped greens with large, tasteless croutons.
The appetizer award probably goes to the grilled shrimp ($18), perfect for the cautious diner. The shrimp are quite large, impeccably grilled, and done up in a garlic-and-tomato sauce of some flavor, although not much of the hot-pepper flavor denoted by the term “arrabiatta.” An appetizer of “verdure” ($13) required picky eating: it featured good, crisp green beans but overly crunchy slices of Jerusalem artichoke, tasteless thin slices of artichoke heart, and an overly salty soup of black olives. Because the initial menu has no vegan entrée, this platter will tempt non-carnivores, but it lacks a focal point.
Another excellent item is macheroncelli ($13/half order; $24/full), long tube pasta resembling uncut ziti, done hard in the Italian style, with “American Kobe beef meatballs” that actually had an unusual beef flavor and a wisp of wine sauce, plus shavings of sheep cheese. But cuscini ($12/$22), which is intended as the same thing inside out — thin pillows of pasta stuffed with Bolognese meat and tossed in sage butter — was just greasy.
Like the good appetizers, the good entrées also seemed to be the simplest: a terrific piece of swordfish ($36) with sautéed greens, and a very tasty sirloin steak ($39). Our server advised dipping the steak in the Gorgonzola potatoes alongside, and it was a good call.
The wine list is French, Italian, and American, and it starts in the mid $30s, but it does provide some good choices there. Our wine, a 2004 Sancerre “Cuvee de Moulins Bales” from Celestine Blondeau ($36), was a good, crisp version of this French white, with some exotic fruit scents similar to those you find in the New Zealand sauvignon blancs. Decaf ($3.50) was a little burnt, but cappuccino ($3.75) was fine, and English Breakfast tea ($4.75), served loose-leaf in a Chinese iron pot, was superb.