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Sep 6, 2007 09:13 PM

Taranta OUT - Neptune Oyster IN

I consider myself a foodie, so whenever I visit a new city or revisit one where I have been, I always focus on where I will be eating during my stay. I recently was in Boston over the Labor Day holiday weekend with a first-time visitor from California, so I wanted to eat in the North End. Being Italian myself and from Philadelphia, I have always loved the North End in Boston, feeling it more authentic than New York and even Philly. I was in search of a non-traditional experience however; not the standard Italian-Americanized cuisine that many tourists may seek out on their initial visit.

I knew I wanted seafood and pasta. I honed in on Neptune Oyster as a lunch option and reserved a table at Taranta, a restaurant that touted itself as "Italian-Peruvian." I had read mostly positive feedback on Chowhound so I reserved a spot there. Now, I also am an avid Food & Wine and Bon Appetit reader. Neptune was highlighted in F&W and it sounded exactly like what I was seeking - oysters and clean fresh seafood. Taranta was a gamble, I knew that. I also wanted a reservation because I wanted to avoid walking around aimlessly trying to decide on a restaurant at the last minute. Neptune and Taranta couldn't be any more different.

Neptune was a terrific stop after an early afternoon visit to the church where Revere ordered the two lanterns hung. Neptune resides on a street parallel to Hanover where Taranta is located, and it was like two different worlds. Hanover is the main artery through North End, so foot traffic and tourists abounded. Although busy, the street where Neptune was situated was quieter, less crowded and more small-town feel. Around 2:30PM on a Saturday, Neptune still had a crowd, but my buddy and I found 2 seats at the bar. We had an amazing lunch: started with a dozen oysters that were shelled perfectly with the juices still intact; some raw littlenecks and cherrystones; then a sauteed calamari in a tomato broth with white beans and hit of spice that was fabulous; and finished off with the crab louie salad which was out of this world, sweet with an almond vinaigrette, a perfect cooling off finish to the meal. Great wine selection and terrific bottled and tapped beers accentuated the meal. Our server Kerri-Ann was likeable, friendly and helpful. This experience made my Saturday. It is amazing what a positive dining experience will do for the mind and soul.

My return to North End in the evening was quite different. We found Taranta at 9 PM, our reserved time, and perused the menu. It was interesting, nothing too outlandish but with some dishes that appealed to our eyes. Upon entry, I had a gut feeling the nite was going to be off-center. I approached the man at the helm of the podium near the door, provided my name and he pointed to the table in the window for us to take; he did it in the fashion of a machine and was seemingly proud to check-off in his book yet another blind soldier into battle. I noticed immediately that this man was the chef, based on his attire, as well as the owner, per the photos in the many reviews so glaringly shown upon entry. I knew this was a bad sign; there were diners in the restaurant yet the head chef was seating guests, never entering the kitchen once during my stay. In fact, in the middle of my meal, I saw the owner outside, on the sidewalk, standing above a newspaper stall reading; I was furious. Upon seating, I had wanted to leave b/c I had an instinctual voice saying "GO." We wanted cocktails to start, but Taranta doesn't have hard liquor, except for a few candied drinks to represent Peru and wherever else. Rather than a vodka rocks, my friend ordered a terrible cremy and frothy cocktail (peruvian) and I a prosecco off-menu. I read the menu again and we decided on sharing an antipasti for 1, followed by the mussels in marsala wine, then my friend having the lobster ravioli and I the casava gnocchi in a braised lamb ragu. Gnocchi are my favorite and I inquired with Marina, our waitress (who turned out to be the only charming asset to the place) if the pastas were homemade. She said pointedly, "no." I was turned off but accepted the reply and ordered the gnocchi b/c I wanted something Peruvian during my meal. I was going for untraditional after all. The wine list was fairly decent, with selections from Italy and Soutth America; we chose a malbec that turned out to be very average. Marina offered no real assistance on the wine.

The antipasti was a rip-off at $12.95. It was evident everything was store-bought and not grilled or prepared in house. It was also minimal and unmemorable. It was a bad sign. I thought about asking for the check and canceling the meal, but I forged ahead. Despite a decent "homemade" mozzarella, the dish was uninspiring.The mussels arrived next and they were lukewarm, the wine sauce too sweet for the mussels. The mussels were tender, but again, the dishwas simply forgettable. I hoped the pastas were the saving grace - they really were not. My friend's ravioli were clearly store-bought and uninspiring, but the shrimp topping the plate were failry good. My gnocchi were decent but heavy - nothing like the light homemade gnocchi I can find in many places in Philadelphia. And the pasta were steeply priced, at $24.95 apiece. This really got to me; if you are not going to make your own pasta, at least be fair in the pricing. AND when I see the head chef reading the paper outside, it means he has gotten lazy and complacent and uncaring for the customer. He has clearly outlived his successes. I am sure initally Taranta served dishes of originality and flavor; now it was all about fast and simple.

My friend and I skipped dessert, as we wanted canolis from Modern Pastry which was recommended to us a few times by locals. We did get to know Marina the waitress during our meal, and honestly, she saved the experience for us. She was lively and passionate. I only wish the food showed that same approach. After talking with Marina, I came to find that the chef no longer worked as much in the kitchen, that he did talke shortcuts, did not make homemade pasta b/c it was "too time-consuming." That is all I needed to hear. If a chef is not willing to show passion and serve the paying customer who is shelling out over $65 a head for an average meal, then get out. Nothing aggravates me more than a bad meal, especially when I know the chef once had a vision and passion and has thrown it away for the dollars.

My tip - Hit Neptune Oyster for lunch AND dinner; skip Taranta! Save your money and try a place called the Daily Catch, where a friend has recommended me their HOMEMADE squid ink pasta!

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  1. I wasn't wowed by Taranta either. I'm shocked to hear they don't make their own pasta. Had I known that, I wouldn't have gone. I had a gnocchi special when I went, and while the sauce was fantastic, the gnocchi, like yours, were dense, which ruins any gnocchi dish for me. At least you discovered Neptune. Next time, for a heavenly, authentic, non-tourist-trap meal in the North End, try Prezza or Mamma Maria. I can't imagine either would ever consider not serving homemade pasta.

    1. I like Taranta a lot. Just a difference of opinion I guess. BTW, the ravioli are most certainly NOT store-bought. I see them making them every day (I live in the North End). If you didn't like them, that's okay. But don't disparage a restaurant using a guess or an obviously digruntled waitress's rant.

      I also like Neptune a lot. We agree there in any case.

      6 Replies
      1. re: Bostonbob3

        I love the mussels marsala. Would eat them any day. I found the sauce to be subtle and wonderful, not too sweet.

        1. re: Bostonbob3

          I agree with BostonBob, the ravioli are homemade, and the gnocchi are made with cassava so they are most definitely not store-bought....Also, I have to disagree with the OP and on his only visit declaring that the chef is lazy, uncaring, and complacent - in our many visits to Taranta (one of my favorites), I've found Chef Duarte the exact opposite - passionate about his craft and and exceptionally friendly and engaging, always willing to answer questions and explain his techniques and use of Peruvian ingredients. In fact, one of the reasons I like their signature gnocchi dish is the combination of cassava root gnocchi with lamb braised in Peruvian cider with a spicy herbal sauce. And I also agree with tdaaa above - I love the mussels with marsala.

          Unfortunately, there are many places in the North End that don't have a full bar, including Neptune and Taranta - two of our favorite restaurants in the North End. In fact, I like the creativity Taranta has shown in offering Peruvian cocktails with a limited bar.

          1. re: Rubee

            I'm glad to see so many Chows step up and defend Jose Duarte. I've been to Taranta many times -- though for the sake of full disclosure the most recent trip was almost a year ago -- and I can attest to two things:

            1. Taranta's pasta is homemade.
            2. Chef Duarte is one of the hardest working chef-owners in the business. He has always been courteous, polite, and passionate about his food when I've eaten there.

            ddeblasi, it's unfortunate that your experience was as it was -- perhaps it was an off night, or perhaps Taranta has indeed found itself on the waning end of the inevitable restaurant life cycle (it has been around for over 6 years, which is a lifetime for many a North End trattoria). But based on your review, it sounds as though -- and this is simply one opinion based on your tone -- that you went into the place expecting to be dissatisfied. I think that you are already putting the restaurant at an unfair disadvantage if that's the case. Perhaps you were looking for something more like Neptune and less like Taranta, which are two very different places. After finding your perfect match at Neptune (and I agree in full with your review of Neptune -- I love it there), anything that contrasted would inevitably be a letdown.

            My skepticism is almost purely emotional: Some of the meals I've eaten there have been the most memorable of my life. Jose's seared tuna with roasted red pepper sauce over braised leeks inspired the first meal I ever cooked for my girlfriend. While you may not have enjoyed your meal there, I think its important for other folks to know that Taranta has been capable of providing a positive, memorable meal as well.

            My comments, though critical, should in no way be taken to discredit your review. I love this forum because you should be encouraged to write about your experience, but I love it more because the community is allowed to respond in kind, to agree or disagree, or simply to speculate why something is the way it is.

            1. re: bry4short

              Oh really well put bry.

              I also love Taranta, and especially the gnocchi with spicy lamb ragu, but if the OP thought it would be similar to Neptune, he was bound to be dissatisfied.

            2. re: Rubee

              I don't think it makes sense to pit Neptune Oyster against Taranta. It's like comparing apples and oysters (or something like that). They are two distinct places, and I love them both for what they offer. I agree with Rubee about the care and joy that seems to be put into the dishes and service at Taranta. I love the rich tastes and Peruvian ingredients. I also enjoyed the incredibly clean tastes of Wellfleet oysters and the marlin duet at Neptune Oyster just a few days ago.

            3. re: Bostonbob3

              Yeah I have to say I love the gnocchi dish he had at Taranta. I an allergic to seafood, but my mother said those are some of the best mussels she ever had, very different from most, but delicious. I guess thats the best part about enjoying a good meal out, is its all opinion.

            4. Don't very few of the restaurants in the North End have a full bar?

              1. Thanks for the report.

                Haven't been to Taranta, but I was under the impression that it was better to order the non-traditional, South American-influenced dishes, especially the secondi on the menu. Any chows care to chime in?

                Also, to the OP, the menu describes the ragu on the cassava ghocchi as "spicy" - how was the sauce??

                2 Replies
                1. re: Bob Dobalina

                  Just read the retorts to my "rant" on Taranta. I may have been overreactive, so let's just say it wasn't as memorable a meal for me as for many other diners. I just found the whole experience as "off." The gnocchi dish did have a spicy kick to it, but the sauce was a bit watery. I love ragus with my pastas. and this did have flavor; it just didn't have the memorable quality to it. The apps were average. I know sometimes one's experience may differ with another. For me, I literally saw the chef hanging outside reading the paper, never going to any table. It was a holiday weekend, on a Saturday nite, so perhaps it was an "off" nite. But in my mind, consistency is key. My meal obviously didn't have the "wow" factor as it did for so many others that I was expecting.

                  Regardless, Neptune Oyster satisfied my stay in the North End. I will certainly be back there.

                  Happy Eating!

                  1. re: ddeblasi

                    FWIW, I found Taranta to be overrated and the food rather forgettable, including the dishes (at the time) that 'hounds had been raving about. I didn't like the vibe of the place either and just don't feel the need to give it another try when there are many more places on my list. Part of what influences my opinion is that I don't have much of a "fine dining" budget and when I do choose to spend, I want a bit of that "wow" factor. For me, Taranta ain't it.

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