"Simple and robust" can mean a few things in an Italian context. Some thoughts:
Trattoria Toscana -- authentic Tuscan, which is eminently simple, focusing on a handful of ingredients: unsalted bread, olive oil. legumes, offal, salumi, simply roasted meats. I revisited recently, and had a superb pureed chickpea soup ("passatta di ceci", I think it's called) and Florentine-style tripe; a friend had a superb special of osso bucco on saffron risotto, more Milanese than Tuscan, I believe. Excellent pastas (though those aren't especially Tuscan.) Real trattoria style, tooL no frills, even a good house wine by the carafe. Modestly priced.
Taranta -- integrates Peruvian fusion elements into some dishes, but otherwise does beautiful Southern Italian across a broad range of regions, including Sardinia and Sicily. Great seafood dishes. Mid-high prices for the neighborhood, generally fine service. Excellent desserts, a little seen feature in the North End.
Vinny's at Night -- a bit Americanized (e.g., supersized portions), but very hearty Sicilian cooking at nice prices, a far better exemplar of the style than most North End Italian-Americans, in my view. A fine nightly special antipasto. Cheap.
Grotto -- not authentically Italian, more like a stylized, creative American chef's idea of it, but definitely tilting towards richness and concentrated flavors. Some knockouts like a gnocchi with short ribs and Gorgonzola. Cool, dark-basement atmosphere. Pretty reasonable.
re: MC Slim JB
Had what I considered a flawless meal at Sage last night. This was my first time there, and I was thoroughly impressed.
A friend had the Kobe Beef Carpaccio, which was flavorful and beefy even before the delicious drizzle of truffle oil, which really made the dish, surprisingly.
I ordered the Taylor Bay scallops special, which included nicely charred (pan-seared) ultra-sweet scallops, some sort of potato or parsnip puree and a sweet fruit reduction. Excellent.
Bufala mozzarela and caponata was fine but just OK, despite server's enthusiastic reco.
We shared a midcourse of truffed fettuccine, which were perfectly al dente and expertly sauced.
DC had the oxtail canneloni, which was awesome. The oxtail ragú was rich, dark, and almost dense, and piping-hot the way it should be. I never would have chosen that myself, so I'm glad he did.
Unlike imthedecidah, I thought the Rice-Smoked Duck Breast was unbelievably delicious. The rice smoking was so subtle (compared with wood or tea), and the fat was perfectly rendered and the meat was a flawless medium-rare. I absolutely loved it.
Had a juicy Arneis, which went excellently with first part of the meal, but can't remember the label beyond that.
I ate at the bar at Sage on Wednesday night. It's kind of sad, the place was mostly empty at around 7:45. My last couple visits, I have really enjoyed it. We had great service at the bar and I thought the food was really good. We had a bibb salad with some lovely duck confit, the lobster gnocchi (which while good didn't stand up to our other pasta IMO) and the truffled fettuccine which was my favorite. We also had four different cheeses which were quite delicious (my favorite being some kind of ashy goat).
In follow up to my Sage visit (cod cake, lobster gnochi, smoke duck ...and hamachi sashimi b/c I couldn't resist seeing if it was like Mario's Essca in NYC) BTW, no rabbit, nor short rib...
I guess I am looking for something Italian with more robust flavors than what I found at Sage: the cod cake on smoked tomato juis was interesting, but the fish cake really lacked punch - it was more a mashed potato-like vehicle for the sauce with all taste of cod long blended out. The lobster gnochi stood up to the recommendations here, on Chow, and was tasty. However, my smoked duck was a major disappointment - especially since I asked our server, on one of the two times he visited our table, what he thought really showcased the chef's style. Skip the sashimi - tasted like mandarin orange slices from a can.
Having said all that, I think it would be a fine place to eat at the bar - maybe just a pasta dish and salad next time. The wine list is nice and has some good values.
Anyone have a restaurant recommendation for the type of Italian cooking that reduces the true ingridiances' flavors down into a robust "stick to your ribs" and satisfying meal?