For hearty fare, eat your pasta Al Dente

The Boston Herald
Review/by Gus Saunders

Simply furnished storefront restaurants seating 30 or so and featuring familiar Italian dishes have become a big attraction in the North End.

They’re easily recognized by long queues of people willing to wait an hour for an overflowing plate of pasta and a glass of robust wine in casual, crowded surroundings where there is no dress code and the noise level often makes conversation difficult.

They have their charm, however, and if you’re seeking an informal setting with big portions and modest prices, Al Dente is a worthwhile destination.

Service is hurried, almost frenetic, yet attractive and friendly.

Wines are comfortably spaced from a well chilled quaffable Banfi Frascati ($13.95) to a mellowed Badia Coltibuono Chianti Classico Reserva ’75 for $69.95.

Many appetizers could just as nearly serve as accompaniments to main dishes. Examples include golden egg dipped sauteed broccoli ($3.95), and the glorious assortment of broccoli, mushrooms, artichoke hearts, peppers and spinach sauteed in olive oil with garlic ($5.95).

More acceptable as an appetizer by itself is the delectable shrimp scampi ($7.95), a set of five large shrimp sauteed in a rich white-wine butter sauce with garlic and lemon juice. Or try the eggplant rollatini ($4.95), three ricotta-filled eggplant rollups topped with melted mozzarella and simmered in a spicy marinara tomato sauce.

Salads are sparkling fresh and inviting, especially the house salad ($4.50), with tender young arugula, Belgian endive and radicchio. Pastas feature well fortified sauces: lots of beef, pork and veal in the Bolognese ($7.95); a generous amount of zesty pancetta and onions in the penne ala matriciana ($7.95); and a nicely balanced blend diced eggplant, tomatoes and Parmesan in the cavatappi, spiral pasta ($8.95).

Chicken is available in a variety of styles, none more satisfying than the chicken buona bocca, ($11.95), flattened chicken breasts layered with prosciutto and mozzarella in a luscious sage-seasoned white-wine butter sauce filled with mushrooms. Tops among the half dozen veal dishes is the veal marsala ($11.95), chock full of diced ham and mushrooms in a sweet marsala wine sauce accompanied by ziti with a marinara sauce.

Desserts – an unrecognizable tiramisu ($3.95), a commercial chocolate mousse cake ($3.95) and cheesecake spread with strawberry jelly ($3.95) – are best ignored. A cp of good espresso is a better finale.

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