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Mar 5, 2006 08:14 AM

New Italian in N. Cambridge

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Stopped off Saturday night around 6:30 to have dinner at Tartufo (sp?), new Italian place specializing in Arbruzzi (sp?) cuisine, located on Sherman Street (in Brickyard Building, on right side of street if you're heading up Sherman from Harvard Square, a couple of block's before you get to Jose's). Looked very appealing from the outside with painted mural, Meditarranean color scheme. Inside not so thrilling. Only one party of three was in the place, the lights were way too bright, a radio was blaring from the kitchen and the smell of overheated coffee permeated the air. When we discovered that there was no alcohol, that was the clincher -- and it provided a ready excuse to politely walk away without eating. The friendly waiter told us they get there liquor license this Tuesday. Hope the offputting stuff will get remedied. The menu looked promising, full range of entrees in the $12-$20 range.

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  1. Our first visit to Tartufo in North Cambridge was a surprising delight; they seem to be settling in nicely, overcoming the deficiencies noted by "katzzz" in March.

    There were four of us from N.Cambridge --we'd had reservations for Stellina's, but thunderstorms threatened and we only enjoy the outdoor patio dining there, so we decided to try Tartufo. No problem parking-- there were several spaces out front and a large public lot across the way at Danehy Park. Attractive patio tables and lush potted plants at the entry, but the stultifying humidity drove us indoors.

    Very attractive interior: softly lit, pleasing trompe l'oeil murals create a sense of sitting in an intimate piazza. No obtrusive noises or odors from the kitchen. Promptly met at the door by the single staffer we encountered all evening, and graciously escorted to a white-linens table by the large front window. I'm guessing that there was seating for about 40 in the main room, with what appeared to be an enclosed dining area for private function or overflow crowds-- but there were only two other tables filled when we arrived.

    If our experience is typical, the lack of diners is due to the summer lull and that Tartufo in Cambridge is as yet undiscovered. We are torn as to whether to spread the good word or keep it to ourselves (the pleasures of walking in to good dining on a Saturday evening without fighting crowds!)-- but then, this is a tough location and other restaurants have failed.

    We hear that the chef, Dante Bellucci, is late from Marino's Ristorante in North Cambridge and features the simple use of fine organic meats, fish, and vegetables served there. Marino's was the pet project of owner Les Marino (owner of Modern Continental, the prime contractor for our infamous Big Dig) who passed away about a year ago.

    The menu was extensive, and included 7 panini that would make a delicious picnic lunch to walk across to Danehy Park. We enjoyed one, the Panino della Casa with a creamy fontina, proscuitto, tomato, arugula, truffle and evoo, cut in quarters as an appetizer, along with an outstanding grilled calamari that was sweet, tender, and smoky, served with arugula, canellini beans and balsamic vinaigrette.

    The house salad (served before the main course) was simple but with very good quality fresh mixed greens, real garden tomato, cukes, balsamic vinaigrette.

    Homemade pastas dominate the entrees and we enjoyed our four choices:

    - the pollo alla pizzaiola offered big chunks of chicken breast with lots of fresh basil in fresh tasting tomato sauce, over fresh rigatoni with mozzarella melted over the top;

    - buccatini con le popette was a fine plate of spaghetti with tasty meatballs -- tomato sauce not the overcooked kind, but still bright with fresh tomatoes. The spaghetti strands on the thick side, but fresh and tender- comfort food.

    - I had little neck clams and large shrimp sauteed in olive oil, white wine, parsley and garlic over fettucini that was quite good, but cold have been better-- while the seafood was delish and cooked with a delicate hand, I would have preferred a slightly more robust flavor in the sauce-- more briny, a little more fresh crushed garlic.

    - the hit of the table was ravioli di gamberi, an ample plate of homemade ravioli (how do they achieve the dramatic black-white striped pasta?) plump with tasty chopped shrimp and a little scallion served on a very delicious coral sauce made from crab, lobster, and cognac.

    All pasta plates were ample as a main course -- if you were to have them as a primi plate, you might want to share with a partner to keep an appetite for a secondi piatti.

    With my vegetarian daughter in mind, I noted several other ravioli dishes without meat or fish, including a basic ricotta ravioli, another stuffed with mushrooms, and an interesting sounding butternut squash ravioli in a walnut sage saffron sauce.

    We usually order a bottle of wine, but tonight not in the mood-- a glass of house pinot grigio and a house red were fine, along with sparkling water. We were a little surprised that the server only mentioned that wines were available without providing a wine list (he might have been able to entice us into ordering a bottle if the list were available).

    None of us had much appetite left for the desserts menu, but we did order an ice cream tortuffo with 4 spoons-- a more-creamy-than-coffee- cappucino flavored outer ice cream layer surrounded a particularly deep fudgy ball of chocolate ice cream in the center, the whole rolled very lightly in a thin crumbly brown sugar shell.

    Probably ran about $40 per person before tax and tip.

    Bottom line: a fine meal, simple but well-prepared using excellent fresh ingredients; very good service; fine atmosphere, pleasant and comfortable, Cambridge-casual; reasonably priced. We'll be back. It still doesn't trump my favorite for local Italian, Trattoria Pulcinella nearby on Huron Ave., but can't always get a table on weekends without a wait. Good to have an easy alternative for a good meal.

    Looking back as we left, we noticed how lovely the dining room looked, softly lit, and realized how often we'd passed by in daytime traffic without giving it a look. I'd suggest you give it a try, but don't tell TOO many friends.

    1. I went this evening to check it out, and thought it was delicious. I had the ravioli di gamberi that Avid Rita recommended and found it very solid, although the sauce was a bit uniform and bland despite all the ingedients that went into it. I also tried the swordfish on special, and it was perfectly cooked, with a white wine sauce -- but not swimming in it. Sadly I was the only one in the restaurant, arriving at 8 and leaving at closing time around 10. Not very promising, especially since it was Saturday night. Perhaps this secret is too well kept -- if you're interested in trying it, I'd do so soon! ...JZ

      1. Count me squarely in the pro-Tartufo camp. Just got back from a very good dinner there.

        Their "secret" seems to be simply to follow the classic Italian culinary model of starting with high quality ingredients, then having the good sense to stay out of the way and let the innate flavors come out.

        Everything was delicious, but a notable standout was their excellent grilled calamari appetizer cooked in a simple, but very flavorful balsamic marinade, served with baby arugula and white beans.

        As was the case with the above posts, the room was nearly empty. Admittedly, this was on an August Sunday night during the Sox/Yanks game, but I do hope this place draws some more diners soon...

        1. Nice tip: this gets added to my list.

          I think the proper term is "Abruzzese", as in "the cuisine of Abruzzo", which I understand uses an interesting combo of mountain and coastal ingredients. The famous dish I know is maccheroni alla chitarra, a handmade pasta cut with a device that looks like a guitar (parallel wires). Limster has sung the praises of this dish at Lucia, an Abruzzese place in the North End, another place I have meant to try and not gotten to yet.

          1. Get here soon if you're interested: word on the street is that it will close in a couple months -- just not enough business