LASAGNA: Fresh squares of this old-fashioned dish, with fabulous marinara, are a relevation.
Where once red sauce reigned supreme, it now takes strength of conviction to stake a North End menu on red-sauce dishes. Ricardo’s flirts with pizza, hedges with steaks and chops, and adds fashionable items like bruschetta and risotto. But the strength of the menu is old-fashioned lasagna, eggplant rollatini, even veal parmigiana — anything in which a well-made tomato sauce will shine. Ricardo’s marinara is pure tomato goodness, not even a hint of the raisin-like flavor of tomato paste. This restaurant has nothing for the culinary sophisticate below a certain age. Old-timers and working-class Italo-Americans will avoid the pretentious dishes, treasure the simplicity, and savor the value that dining-out Italian once represented. Maybe a few of the retro-chic Gen-Zers will fall in love all over again with these dishes. I rather hope so.
|Ricardo’s Ristorante | 175 North Street, Boston | Open Mon-Thurs, 11:30 am-3 pm and 5-10 pm; Fri & Sat, 11:30 am-3 pm and 5-11 am; and Sun, 1-10 pm | AE, MC, VI | Full bar | Validated parking at parcel 7 garage | Sidewalk-level access | 617.720.3994|
The room is also a little retro. It looks bigger than it is, and despite a lot of windows onto North Street, it’s comparatively quiet. Credit carpeting and traditional background music — Italian on my first visit, Christmas tapes by early December.
Food begins with crusted white bread, fairly neutral olive oil, and grated cheese in a shaker. Bruschetta ($6), which I don’t really recommend, is the same bread grilled (and ours burnt a little on the bottom), topped with chopped tomato salad and capers. Garlic bread ($5) is even less interesting. You can make it at home with more garlic and better bread.
But the eggplant rollatini ($8) are meltingly wonderful, with that pure, clean marinara worth eating by the spoonful. Mussels and clams ($9) are in the shell, served in a spicy tomato-based sauce that also does more for the basic bread. A baby spinach salad ($9) is a pretty smart concession to modernity. The tomatoes are just okay, but cheese on top helps, as do candied nuts, crumbled bacon, and a creamy Italian dressing. Only prosciutto and melon ($8) fell flat on unripe honeydew, despite nice slices of thin, salty ham.
The best of our four entrées was lasagna ($14), with that fabulous marinara, fresh ricotta cheese, soft pasta, and not too much meat or grease. Lasagna freezes decently and holds well, but a fresh square is a revelation. Veal parmigiano ($17) is good, not great, but another opportunity to eat that tomato sauce.
Seafood risotto ($24) is a nice job on the modern stuff. The rice is cooked through, and it isn’t as creamy as most restaurant risotto, but the salty seafood broth flavors every bite, and the littleneck clams and mussels (both in the shell), calamari, and shrimp are all nicely cooked, not overdone. Sausage cacciatore ($17) has chunks of stuffed sausage vying with well-composed meatballs in a sauce of sautéed onions and peppers.
The wine list isn’t fancy, and I thought it somewhat pricey, although the Piccini Chianti Classico ($8/glass; $30/bottle) is still a decent value. Coffee, decaf (both $2.50), and cappuccino ($5) are all up to neighborhood standards, and some of the desserts are rather better. The cannoli ($5) were fresh both of shell and ricotta filling, and uncluttered, like the marinara. The gelato ($6) — we chose pistachio — was the real deal. I didn’t think much of the chocolate mousse ($5.50), and the tiramisu ($6) was likewise edible but undistinguished.
Service was pleasant and accurate on two visits. If you google Ricardo’s, as many diners-out do these days, you’ll notice a very bipolar distribution of opinion. Some bloggers say it’s a personal favorite or a hidden gem, with food like Mama used to make. Others report major disappointment. My guess would be that two factors are at work. Because the menu is too long, foodies are coming in and ordering their favorite dishes, which are not well made here, but attractively priced. The happier people have more conservative tastes. The other issue is that Ricardo’s is not widely advertised and it’s relatively easy to walk in and get a table. Not only does this mean that some people are being turned away at the very gourmet restaurant, Mare, across the street and coming here expecting a very different class of seafood risotto; but also that Ricardo’s staff may not adjust well to peak-demand periods, such as summer festas. Taken for what it is, at un-crowded times, Ricardo’s provides sincere and satisfying versions of old-school Italian restaurant food at reasonable prices.
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Robert Nadeau: RobtNadeau@aol.com