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Your favorite *Southern Italian* restaurant in Boston?

  • f

We were in the North End the other day and tried Pagliuco's. Not bad, but seemed overpriced and not entirely consistent. I chose it because we forgot to look up any recs online and there were a lot of elderly Italian-Americans eating there. Granted Pagliuco's leans pretty Italian-American, and I can appreciate that too. But which is your favorite Southern-style Italian restaurant in Boston? I am most interested in dishes along the likes of rigatoni with eggplant and ricotta salata, and definitely will not be ordering chicken "parmigiano" or whatever. Sicilian or Barese influence would be asking too much I think, but anywhere "Southern" would be great, thanks!

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  1. I cannot think of an Italian place in Boston that is so regionally focused to Southern Italy.

    Consider Vinny's at Night in Somerville - no ricotta salata and it is more firmly rooted in Italian-American, but the eponymous owner is Sicilian so you can find a few interesting dishes like rabbit or braciola that you don't often find at other restaurants in the area.

    Also consider Gran Gusto in Cambridge - not Southern Italian but no chicken parm on the menu either.

    Lastly, although I have not been in many moons, La Campania in Waltham is well-liked by some folks here. And by definition, it is Southern Italian, although a review of the menu reveals it is surely not family-style home cooking.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Bob Dobalina

      Unfortunately there are no true southern Italians places in Boston, just over-priced poorly executed Italian-American.

      Having said that, the best spot for Italian-American is Rino's in East Boston - (good luck getting a table)

      While on the topic of southern Italian food, I highly recommend Arthur Schwartz's "The Southern Italian Table". The recipes are authentic.

      http://www.amazon.com/The-Southern-It...

    2. Punchinella in Cambridge) is more regional than most and has occasionally done a Sicilian menu.

      26 Replies
      1. re: gourmaniac

        Ha - last time I went to Puchinella, the head waiter looked like he was going to *punch* the chef. He told us after waiting 45 minutes for apps, "Your food is never going to come. You should just go." That was a couple of years ago so I am sure they have worked out the kinks since then.

        1. re: gourmaniac

          Do you mean Pulcinella? On Huron?

          1. re: Stride

            Pulcinella, Punchinella... yes. :)

            1. re: Bob Dobalina

              Ha, sorry, Bob, but I couldn't resist linking this. I still remember what a kick I got out of this post when I was fairly new to chowhound. I'm sure I'll give it a try some day, but with Gran Gusto now a seasoned place that has worked out it's service issues and located just around the corner, it's hard to be tempted to head anywhere else in that neighborhood.

              http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/525959

              1. re: bear

                Ha, I can't believe you remember that post - that's too funny!

                Seems I totally forgot the details of the story and completely agree with you - many good meals at Gran Gusto since that first hiccup has made it hard to give Pulcinella another try.

                1. re: Bob Dobalina

                  I am in a minority on the issue on this board, perhaps a minority of one, but I've always found the food at Pulcinella superior to that at Gran Gusto.

                  1. re: FoodDabbler

                    FoodDabbler, do you have any favorites or specifics? I'd love to learn more about the actual food. It looks so inviting when we drive by, but everything I read online suggests either sub-par or very inconsistent experiences. There really isn't a lot of recent reporting on the place.

                    1. re: bear

                      I don't want to oversell Pulcinella. I've found it inconsistent, too, especially at peak times. A few months ago we had a very watery linguini with clams, for example. But, on the whole, we've found their pastas robustly seasoned. The menu changes from time to time and a particular favorite of ours -- pasta with small, diced potatoes and white beans -- is not on the present menu. Still, we've enjoyed most things on the primi list. We also usually like the appetizers -- the grilled artichokes and the sardines are among the ones we like the most. The secondi are the weakest things on the menu -- I've had a somewhat flavorless pork chop once and dry rabbit another time -- but the fish is usually better than the meat.

                      This isn't a ringing endorsement, but we've found Pulcinella worth occasional visits, since we live in the general neighborhood. Our experiences with Gran Gusto have been worse. Here are a few comments from two years ago: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/7329... . Our more recent experiences have been similar. We've found the food there weak at best, and often strange.

                      1. re: FoodDabbler

                        How is Gran Gusto strange? I lived in Italy much of my life and find most OTHER Italian restaurants here strange.

                        I find this a little hard to believe.

                        1. re: retrofabulousity

                          You may like strawberries (for example) with your meat. I don't. To each his/her own.

                          1. re: FoodDabbler

                            Do go on - What was the dish, exactly? I've never seen anything so strange at GG. Any others?

                            Glad to hear that Pulcinella is worth a visit and appreciate your post upthread - I figured their chow must be decent enough, or it would have vanished a long time ago.

                            1. re: FoodDabbler

                              Hmmm this sounds VERY odd.

                              As I said I have lived much of my life in Italy and have been to Gran Gusto many times, always with my other friends from Italy and all of the Italian community here in Boston knows Gran Gusto. In fact, it is the place most of us go for no frills Italian food done solidly in general.

                              Not one of us has heard of any such thing being done at GG. I was just there last night again and the menu has absolutely nothing the least bit odd by Italian standards.

                              1. re: retrofabulousity

                                See http://www.allmenus.com/ma/cambridge/... . It's the duck with strawberry balsamic sauce that I was thinking of, and it had largish strawberry pieces in it when I had it 2--3 years ago.

                                Bob: I haven't kept track of everything I've had there over the years, but I've often found the flavor combinations unappealing or weak. Even the eggplant parmigiana that gets such praise here was too smothered in gloppy tomato sauce for my taste when I last had it in May. I'd just had a much better version (by a lot) at Torrisi in NYC, by way of comparison.

                                1. re: FoodDabbler

                                  I don't want to wander too far afield with this talk of Gran Gusto and strawberries, but I did a little digging to see if I could track down the origin of this strawberry duck dish. I skimmed several books on my shelves -- the Oxford companion to Italian food, several Marcella Hazan books, the Silver Spoon, La Cucina Italiana, etc. -- but found no mention of this particular pairing. Duck with fruit is, of course, a classic combination, and I found discussions of duck with cherries, with peaches, with figs, but not with strawberries. There are recipes for duck with strawberries on the Internet, but their origin is unclear.

                                  In any case, a pairing of duck, goose, pork, etc., with fruit requires restraint. Too enthusiastic a hand and you've wandered -- as Gran Gusto did -- from main course to dessert.

                                  1. re: FoodDabbler

                                    There are scores of actual Italians here in Boston who swear by Gran Gusto for a reason. You seem to have found one dish who knows when and somehow thought you could deduce who knows what.

                                    How many years have you lived and cooked in Italy by the way?

                                    Here's the menu http://www.grangustocambridge.com/gra...

                                    Looks pretty solid to me.

                                    1. re: retrofabulousity

                                      I think Gran Gusto is pretty authentic as well, but geez, relax. I don't think the entire 'Italian Community' in Boston has nominated you to chastise FoodDabbler for sharing an opinion. Just because you have "lived and cooked" in Italy doesn't make you the last word on the subject.

                                      We have had some great dishes at GG, but also some blah misses. Having spent a fair amount of time in Italy myself, Trattoria Toscano takes me back more than Gran Gusto, but that's just my experience (and certainly not Southern Italian as the OP asked for).

                                      1. re: Gabatta

                                        He isn't just sharing an opinion; he is repeating over and over a personal preference so I think it bears pointing out that Gran Gusto is quite solid and authentic as far as that goes and to do that, it also bears pointing out that GG has consistently a very high number of actual Italian fans here which is precisely how I came to know the place when I came to Boston from Italy..

                                        Too often self-styled know-it-alls on message boards with 5 minutes experience in a country speak as if they had lived and cooked somewhere for 30 years.

                                        I would prefer that those like myself coming from Italy or wherever else not look at this board when looking for something Italian and be discouraged by such antics.

                                      2. re: retrofabulousity

                                        I've mentioned other objections I have to other of their dishes. But I've no wish to quarrel with you on this point. I admire the huge gusto with which you've taken up the cause of Gran Gusto. If misguided people like me eat there less, all it means is that there'll be more for you and the scores like you.

                                        I do like their pizza, though.

                                        1. re: FoodDabbler

                                          BTW, here's the current menu (or should I say currant, given the discussion?)

                                          http://www.grangustocambridge.com/gra...

                                          Appears the duck is gone and no strawberries.

                                          1. re: Bob Dobalina

                                            Yes, I know the sweet duck is dead. It's been gone for a while. I still do eat at GG from time to time -- mainly pizza, but every once in a while I'll try a pasta or an app, mainly out of deference (seriously) to you, yumyum, and others on this board whose views I respect. You guys like the food there, so I keep hoping it will click for me too.

                                            1. re: FoodDabbler

                                              Appreciate that sentiment, although sincerely I do not deserve any deference.

                                              I figure you know what you're talking about, and with different strokes and all. For example, I hated Gargoyles no matter how many times I re-tried it due to the so-called wisdom in these pages. ;-) j/k

                                              Actually, your opinion of Pulcinella nudges it closer to a re-try, although it will tough to overcome my initial experience there, as scarring as it was. :)

                                              1. re: Bob Dobalina

                                                I have found with GG and with Erbaluce that you are either "for it" or "against it" and there don't seem to be "half measures." I've decided its not worth recommending either though they remain among my own favorites. I'll take friends who seem likely to enjoy what I like, but even then several of them have wondered what the fuss is about and commented that they both seem "dull." Oh well, there it is. Can't argue taste.

                                                1. re: teezeetoo

                                                  I find the GG part of that strange. The place is as conventional as it gets 99 times out of 100 and I mean that in a very good way. Trattoria Toscana is the same thing.

                                                  Erbaluce is a lot more unusual for better or for worse. I do not particularly care for it but I doubt anyone would claim that it is simply typical of Italian cuisine anywhere in Italy per se.

                                                  1. re: retrofabulousity

                                                    well, maybe the folks that like Erbalcue aren't looking to find Italian food in Italy replicated, but perhaps re-interpreted. I lived and cooked in Spain for a long time and I miss it terribly but I do appreciate some not completely authentic but quite interesting interpretations I find elsewhere.

                                                    1. re: Madrid

                                                      I was not critiquing Erbaluce for not being "authentic" but rather stating that I can understand people who have certain expectations in that department not being pleased.

                                                      1. re: retrofabulousity

                                                        I certainly wasn't comparing their cuisine and they are two of my favorites. I was just sharing the odd confluence - people I have sent to each either really like them or tell me they don't understand what I like about them. For me, GG is very classic Italy, Rome and south - Erbaluce is personal, not cookie cutter, reflects a particular chef more than a specific cuisine, thought it is certainly Italian in origin. I just got back in June for an incredibly wonderful visit to Naples and Sicily and I found, to my astonishment, many Americans who complained the food was dull. I thought it was astonishingly good, but it certainly showcases quality ingredients presented with simplicity rather than camouflaged. That is what I like about the best Italian food but others seem to think it is boring. So i can't see the point of arguing - I just share what I like, and good luck hope you do too.

            2. Echoing some other posts a bit here.

              I'd say Taranta fits the bill, doing "cucina meridionale", which includes the South of Italy from the Campania / Molise axis on down, plus the two big islands. A few dishes also include some Peruvian influences. The Daily Catch is essentially Sicilian, Maurizio's claims Sardinia. I'd call Vinny's at Night in Somerville Sicilian-American. Trattoria Gran Gusto is pretty traditional Campanian (especially its Neapolitan-style pizzas); Posto, La Campania and Da Vinci are doing more Americanized versions of the same, with Posto hitting the Neapolitan pizza mark, too. The better red-sauce joints in the North End I'd also call Italian-American with roots in Campania and Sicily but a century of American adaptation: Massimino's, L'Osteria, Vinoteca di Monica, Pagliuca.

              http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/

              7 Replies
                1. re: Beachowolfe

                  I must confess that that place has been on my to-try list for, like, ten years. Sorta looks Abruzzese, maybe? Spaghetti alla chitarra seems to hint that way, so Central bordering on a Southern.

                  http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/

                  1. re: MC Slim JB

                    I thought you had been the one that put it on my radar 3-4 years ago. Must be something about the name because every time we're pondering somewhere local we end up somewhere else. Then I look at the menu online and I feel like it could be a real hidden gem. Italian born chef-owner with limited menu size and lots of homemade pasta.

                    I will almost certainly forget this sentiment next time I'm trying to pick a restaurant.

                    1. re: Beachowolfe

                      Finally tried this place a month or so ago... It is well worth exploring, IMO. Great texture in both pasta and risotto, careful, simple flavors. It was a quiet Sunday (I think) restaurant was maybe half full, pretty sure the owner was out in the dining room conversing w/ regulars. Service was friendly and casual.

                      1. re: Beachowolfe

                        Their grilled calamari is the best I've ever had. I also remember a crepe-like appetizer that had mushrooms init that was excellent. Had the spaghetti alla chitarra, which I can't remember too well, one way or the other. I must get back there. Owner is from Benevento, which is apparently the witch capitol of italy.

                        1. re: nsenada

                          That's two great reasons for us to get in there ASAP. I love calamari preps that aren't fried. More importantly my father's family is from Benevento and we have a large branch still there.

                          1. re: Gabatta

                            Agreed - I should add that that was the first time I had had grilled calamari, and was quite sceptical that it could top fried. Man, was I blown away by the flavor. Really simple, just the grilled squid, probably olive oil, some greens, and a little salt, but so damned good - fried takes a backseat for me now. They also nailed the texture - a little chew, but not too much. I have had grilled calamari since, but none have been as good.

                            The owner is a bit of a talker, so I imagine if you mention your fam back in Benevento, you'll probably be spending a lot of time with him. He does have some interesting stories, though.

              1. Not in Boston, but Trattoria San Pietro in Norwell has a good version of Sicilian-style penne and eggplant.
                http://www.trattoriasanpietro.com/men...

                1. Rialto does expensive regional Italian menus, changing the region every couple of months. They've done Sicily in the past. Right now the regional menu is Ligurian.

                  1 Reply
                  1. I like Antonio's on Cambridge Street, for a solid Italian-American meal. I don't know exactly how "southern" the food is there, but it's good.

                    1. Tavolo, in Dorchester, does regional fares on Weds nights. Each Weds it is a different region and each weds it is very very good (as is their food the rest of the week!) if you give them a call i'm sure they will be more than happy to tell what region is on the calendar. I strongly recommend this restaurant. Excellent fresh local ingredients.