HAVE SOME BALLS: Rice balls at Salvatore’s really taste of their fillings.
The new waterfront restaurant scene is all glitz, with chains and chain relatives from Morton’s, Legal Sea Foods, and Wolfgang Puck. Sal Lupoli is a chain guy, too, though his is a chain of 30 pizzerias: Sal’s Pizza Company, which started in Salem, New Hampshire, and is now run out of Lawrence. A full-tilt Italian restaurant that gives up nothing on the pizza front, Salvatore’s — the Lupoli family’s answer to fine dining — beats the calzone off the competition, and serves al-dente pasta as good as any place. It’s shiny and slick, with lots of glass and Tuscan colors and big-band vocals, isn’t too noisy, and is long and partitioned so it seems both intimate and busy on quiet nights. You can even hear the conversation at your table. Nothing else is very innovative, but everything is very flavorful.
Salvatore’s | 617.737.5454 | 225 Northern Avenue, Boston | Open Mon–Sat, 11 am–Midnight | AE, DC, MC, VI | Full bar | No valet parking | Sidewalk-level access
Bread is Italian and soft, with a pour of extra-virgin olive oil containing a hot pepper, a dot of balsamic vinegar, and a sprig of fresh thyme. My favorite appetizer was Sal’s vegetarian pizza ($16). With the freshness of the just-baked dough and the toppings of spinach, broccoli, fried eggplant chips, and black olives, this is a terrific pizza.
If you can’t wait 12 minutes for the pie, I’d also recommend the rice balls ($11), which actually seemed fried, and really tasted of their fillings, especially the meat sauce Bolognese. The spinach-mozzarella balls and the mushroom-mozzarella balls were fine, as was the rich dip, which is allegedly made with gorgonzola cheese but tasted similar to condensed cream-of-tomato soup made with cream instead of milk.
Salvatore’s signature salad ($7) gets some mileage out of chunks of Granny Smith apple and gorgonzola cheese with a good dressing. The antipasto ($11) has an undressed salad, but two kinds of Italian ham, thin-sliced salami, excellent fresh mozzarella and provolone cheeses, and delectable giant olives. Tomato Caprese ($9) is just as good, except for the tomato part. It’s December, folks, and Capri is a long way away.
Somebody here knows pasta, and, even with a slim budget, has made some great decisions. Chicken saltimbocca ($18) — a prosciutto-wrapped breast with plenty of sage, cheese, and a fully cooked wine-mushroom sauce — is excellent. And the side dish of mafaldine pasta in a gorgonzola-cream sauce is the best side pasta I’ve ever had in a Boston restaurant. (Mafaldine is frilled-ribbon pasta, made here with a bit of chew and heaps of flavor.)
The linguine with clams ($20), featuring lots of littlenecks and a kick of pepper flakes, is also a bit al dente. Gnocchi mammarosa ($15) is an enormous plate of fairly light pasta dumplings in a tomato-cream sauce that just won’t quit. And smoked-salmon vodka cream ($19) has quite a similar sauce to the tomato-cream served with the gnocchi. The vodka is cooked out, but again the rigatoni isn’t overdone, and the flakes of smoked salmon are very appetizing.
What Salvatore’s doesn’t have are a lot of fish dishes. The filet of the day ($27) is actually filet mignon! Sal, you’re not in Lawrence anymore; this is the waterfront — get with the program. Our day the filet came with Madeira sauce (impeccably made, with the alcohol cooked out and the slightly sweet flavor cooked in), green and white snap beans, asparagus, and oven-fried potatoes. The meat was rare, as ordered, but not exceptionally flavored, as is the case with this cut, unless it’s aged.
Sal’s wine list is mostly Italian and Californian, with some French bottles. I think the cheapest prices are a little high, with better values in the mid $40s. But our bottle of 2003 Mattei Barbera ($26) was good, rough red wine for food, and showed well when slightly chilled and served in oversize glasses. Decaf coffee ($2) was okay, but our first espresso ($2.50) came cold and bitter. A replacement was much better.
Desserts (all $8) are just adequate. Gelati, of which you get a choice of three, were the best. I tried the rich chocolate, strawberry, and a lemon sorbet. Vanilla-bean gelato came with a cannoli, which was fresh enough but unnecessarily gilded with chocolate coating and lots of chocolate chips. More vanilla gelato came with an underwhelming barely cooked brownie sundae.
Sal’s dessert special is a kind of pizza covered with Nutella, more chocolate chips, and lines of chocolate sauce. However, I was not very impressed. There’s also tiramisu, which is large but undistinguished. But large jars atop the bar with fruit macerating in alcohol persuaded us to try an infused green-apple dessert. Unfortunately, it tasted like a Granny Smith apple soaked in rum with whipped cream. Apparently, the infusing liquid is actually chardonnay spiked with apple brandy and apple vodka. I’m holding out for the pears.
Service at Salvatore’s was excellent, though our server did call various people “honey” a lot, and asked if someone at our table was still “working on” something. People dining out are having fun, not working. “May I clear that for you?” is the same question without the “W” word. The atmosphere is warm, like a neighborhood restaurant, even though no one really lives around here, and people wander in wearing business-travel clothes. I think it’s the room design, the way Italian food carries everyone along, maybe even the combination of big-band vocals and silent TVs set to sporting events. Somehow a sense of community arises in this half-deserted convention district, as if a neighborhood the size of the Back Bay was not merely projected but actually had been built and filled. It’s that Salem, New Hampshire, pizzeria feeling.
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