Monday, July 17, 2006

Restaurant Review: Strega

379 Hanover Street
Boston, MA 02113
(617) 523-8481

Meet Nick Varano. He's the owner of Strega, and that webpage summarizes what I think of his restaurant: He's more interested in creating a hip, trendy night spot to attract beautiful people and celebrities than serving good food. Varano paid for a series of TV commercials featuring enticements about whom you'll see at Strega and featuring catchphrases like "It's not your father's North End" and "What happens in Strega, stays in Strega." (The latter is read by Vincent Pastore, "Big Pussy" from HBO's The Sopranos, who is shown joking with Varano in the commercial.) When a restaurant touts itself by the people you'll see rather than the food you'll eat, I get suspicious.

Quality: The appetizers were better than the entrées and I had no complaints, so I'll skip ahead to dinner. I ordered tubettini all' aragosta, which is pasta with lobster meat in a spicy marinara. It's an extravagant dish that I order just about anywhere I can find it on the menu — and I'd imagine that even if you've never seen it, you can appreciate that something is wrong when your plate arrives with a half-lobster still stuck inside its shell buried under pasta and sauce and the waiter hands you a nutcracker.

This is like ordering a steak sandwich and being handed a sub roll stuffed with a New York strip. When you order pasta all' aragosta, the lobster meat is supposed to be separated, chopped, and tossed into the pasta before it's served. I can't imagine why any cook would think otherwise, that I'd want to dig my hands through a pile of pasta and red sauce to crack open a lobster and then wipe my hands on a napkin to finally dig into my dinner just as it's gone cold (because obviously, small pasta tubes don't retain heat for long); but this is a perfect example of form over function and why a chef needs to try eating every dish he designs. A lobster in its shell definitely makes for an impressive presentation, but it's a pretty stupid way to serve this particular meal.

Across three entrées, everyone at my table agreed: The ingredients were fresh and the preparation was OK, but the flavors were bland. Obviously, Italian food is not supposed to be bland. Nothing was over- or undercooked and it's not that the kitchen staff made mistakes: The recipes just weren't very good.

Value: The prices aren't much higher than comparable North End restaurants, but the portions weren't impressive and the flavors were disappointing. The check wasn't exorbitant and it didn't feel like we were being ripped off — but I'd have rather spent the money somewhere else.

Hospitality: Our waiter was polite, but we were given the distinct impression that table turnover is their first priority. He held our drinks until we placed our dinner order and he ignored our empty water bottle twice until I asked for another, and busboys were hovering constantly. An Italian restaurant that doesn't serve dessert isn't an aberration in the North End; but in this context, it felt distinctly like another tactic to speed us out the door.

The bottom line: Not recommended. The only reason to eat at Strega is to be able to say that you've eaten at Strega. If Varano wants to position himself as the North End's host to the glitterati, that's fine with me — but he'd better keep buying those TV spots and plugging Strega as "the place to be," because he sure won't impress anyone with its merits as a restaurant.


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