YOU’RE FIRED: Gran Gusto’s grilled squid has the right balance of flame and seafood tastes.
Gran Gusto is an Italian delight located as close to the middle of nowhere as it gets in North Cambridge, in the Brickyard office building opposite the former city dump (now a park). As such, it’s a sleeper, and it needed a sleeper strategy to replace the previous occupant of the space, Tartufo at the Brickyard. (Tartufo was a branch of a successful Newton red-sauce palace; it went into a death spiral of sporadic crowds and kitchen and service gaps.)
|Gran Gusto | 617.441.0400 | 90 Sherman Street, Cambridge | Open Mon–Thurs, noon–10 pm, and Fri & Sat, noon–11 pm | AE, DC, DI, MC, VI | Beer and wine | No valet parking; free parking in front and at rear of building | Access up two steps from sidewalk level|
Gran Gusto, shifting the emphasis west from Abruzzo to Naples and the province of Campania, established itself with notable thin-crust pizza. That’s great, but Gran Gusto has a real chef who also has a real talent for seafood, house-made pasta, and even desserts. You can have a luxury dinner here for moderate money, and increasing numbers of diners in-the-know have done so, despite a lack of full-length reviews of the place.
Unfortunately for those patrons, my job is to spoil their private paradise and let readers in on the secret. Bearing that in mind, my first tip is: order the grilled squid ($11). Most of the grilled squid in Boston is deliberately undercooked to keep it tender. Gran Gusto grills the squid a little past that point, so the wonderful taste of fire complements the mild seafood. The chef also scores the bodies in rings and arranges the tentacles very prettily on the plate.
If you still want your calamari tender, have the deep-fried baby octopus and calamari ($11.50). (Octopus is popping up all over in Boston restaurants, which probably says something about the price of local squid.) Both are nicely fried, with a tasty salad underneath. Other options include a frutti di mare appetizer ($11.50), which mixes mussels with littleneck clams in a garlicky sauce without — for once — too much salt, and salmon carpaccio ($11.50), which is cured, I think. It holds together better than raw carpaccio of salmon, and works well with an arugula salad with bits of oranges and sweet dressing.
Next tip: order the scialatielli ($15). Scialatielli are thick, square strips of house-made pasta. If you can imagine square udon noodles with the chew of fresh pasta, that’s about right. The sauce is made with onions, chopped shrimp, and sautéed radicchio — it’s fabulous, though I would eat pretty much any sauce on pasta this good. If you want your pasta less chewy, the linguine with clam sauce ($17.50) is just slightly al dente, but the garlic just won’t quit, and the clams in the shell are just enough for contrast.
Finally, somebody has to have risotto. There are three options, but the obvious choice is risotto Nettuno ($19) with shrimp, clams, and more octopus and squid. The chef ascribes to the al dente school of risotto, too, but uses enough cheese to make it worthwhile to chew all those individual grains of rice. The novel risotto is Agli Agrumi ($15) with bits of orange and a lemony flavor, slightly cut by the cheese. This sounds like dessert, but it’s lean and dry enough to work as an Italian middle course or as a light entrée.
Of course, if you’re in the mood for meat, there’s a bargain filet mignon ($25), served quite rare, but with full flavor for a cut that doesn’t always have it, and a side of mixed red and green peppers (some pickled, some not), along with dabs of seasonally delicious pesto. Veal scaloppini ($19) are not breaded; they are very thin scallops of veal with actual flavor, as well as a lemon sauce, a side of sautéed baby spinach, and a garnish of little deep-fried shoestrings of zucchini.
As for the pizza for which Gran Gusto is known, to judge by a pizza Margherita ($12) we had as part of our appetizer course, the wood-fired oven delivers a delectable crust with a bit of char, and the classic toppings of real buffalo mozzarella, tomatoes, and newly picked basil are in order.
The wine list is all Italian and reasonably priced. We had a bottle of 2004 Carpineto Chianti Classico riserva ($48). The list has it as a 2003, but 2004 is probably a better year, and this wine has oak age to soften it and heaps of fruit to cover the 13.5 percent alcohol. (The 2006 regular bottling, in a lighter style, is $35). Decaf coffee ($2) was terrible our night, but a mini martini glass of cold (not iced) espresso ($3.50) was very refreshing on a hot evening, if slightly sweet.