109 Salem Street, Boston
Open MonĖThurs, 11:30 a.m.Ė10 p.m.; Fri and Sat, 11:30 a.m.Ė11:30 p.m.; and Sun, noonĖ10 p.m.
AE, DC, MC, Vi
Validated parking in Parcel 7 garage
Sidewalk-level access to most tables; bathrooms up three steps
Al Dente is not one of the top 10 restaurants in the North End, maybe not even one of the top 20. Yet such is the strength of the basic Italian-American menu that it is a very enjoyable and useful restaurant, especially for diverse family groups. Itís even possible to get some pasta "al dente" ó that is, toothsome ó but only by ordering homemade fusilli ($3 extra), with one of the 13 sauces. Despite the restaurantís name, most pasta here is suburban-soft.
Food begins with white crusty bread and packets of butter, although you can improve it with a sprinkle of the grated cheese thatís on every table (with salt, pepper, and red-pepper flakes). I had the fusilli alla carbonara (lunch/$7.95 plus $3; dinner/$13.95 plus $3), and the fusilli were obviously homemade and much less twisted than this shape usually implies. They were paired tubes of curved pasta a few inches long. Maybe "fusilli" also means shotgun barrels, which these twin tubes resemble more than they do twists or spirals. In any case, they hold some chew. The carbonara sauce isnít the stick-on bacon-and-egg sauce of most carbonara, but a cream sauce well-flavored with bacon (in chunks).
For appetizers, you might like the escarole soup ($4.75), featuring a real meat stock, lots of meatballs, and enough sourish greens to make the point. Caprese salad ($8.95) was a good job on the cheese and basil, fair on the tomatoes. Grilled-fig salad ($8.95) had three seasonally sweet figs, maybe even too sweet, wrapped in real prosciutto on nice field greens, with a little goat cheese and walnuts sprinkled on top. A special on spinach crêpes ($10.95) arrived so heavily stuffed with ricotta that it overwhelmed the spinach purée, and made the dish too filling for an appetizer. Maybe if you split it?
My non-favorite among the appetizers was a special on squid sauté ($9.95). Squid arenít really flavorful enough to sauté, and here had no effect on the marinara sauce. You either grill them quickly for a bit of smoke, or stew them for an hour or more to get the flavor out. Broccoli fritti ($7.95) are a good idea, but ours were over-browned in the deep fryer, and the marinara dip was nothing special. A sautéed-vegetable medley ($6.95) had a few slices of artichoke heart, but was otherwise like a side dish, with oily broccoli, mushrooms, peppers, and a little spinach. The fried calamari ($9.95) was a generous portion of large rings, but ours were limp, not crisp, with a few jalapeño peppers.
Among the main dishes, the lobster ravioli ($10.95/$18.95) are excellent: big, chewy pasta, well-filled, in a creamy sauce with shrimp and aged grated cheese. Sea bass al dente ($22.95) doesnít mean that they serve it chewy. For one thing, itís Chilean sea bass, a rich, white-fleshed (and potentially endangered) fish that is hard to overcook. Itís served with crunchy risotto and excellent mushrooms, although I couldnít find the sun-dried tomatoes or capers touted by the menu.
Besides the fusilli, my pasta sample included gnocchi bolognese ($15.95), rather good pasta dumplings in a meat sauce thatís certainly meaty, if lacking the long-cooked richness and caramelization of the old North End meat sauces.
Chicken umberto ($16.95) suffered from the same over-browning in the fryer as the broccoli fritti, but is otherwise a promising dish, with sprigs of fresh sage, slices of real prosciutto, and baked-on cheese. Probably it will be better after Al Denteís staff reads this review. An order of veal and eggplant parmesan ($15.95) had none of this problem ó perhaps it was pan-fried ó and is a good buy for a big eater, if that big eater can resist the side dish of spaghetti, which was as limp and lukewarm as every other side-dish pasta in the North End.
Al Dente has a surprisingly enticing and inexpensive wine list, although glasses are too small, and reds are served too warm, whites too cold. (Again, these are near-universal practices; Iím just crusading here, not singling out Al Dente.) A glass of 2002 KWV Steen/Chenin Blanc ($6.50/glass; $23.95/bottle) was a nice, aromatic white from South Africa with lots of the piny-fruity aroma of the chenin blanc grape, always known as "steen" in South Africa. A 2002 Col díOrcia sangiovese ($8.50/$32.95) was one of the more aromatic Tuscan wines Iíve had in Boston, with lots of raspberry fruit, although some alcohol comes through. Slightly chilled, it would be ideal with this kind of food. A cup of hot tea (on a cold-day second visit) was served as a cup of hot water, tea bag on the side. Someone, somewhere, is teaching servers that this is elegant in some way ó that it appeals to people who donít want tea that has actually brewed.
There are no desserts at Al Dente, a practice that works in the North End, where you can always walk to an espresso bar or bakery to finish an evening in continental fashion. The service on both a crowded weekend evening and a near-empty weekday lunch was good.
The downstairs room is not special, but it does evoke Italian-American restaurants with granite café tables, ragged walls in Roman ochre, a tin ceiling, and (perhaps most) with a forest of fake Tiffany lamps. Despite the gray carpet, itís as loud as a New York delicatessen when full, although one can hear Italian folk music at quieter times.
Robert Nadeau can be reached at RobtNadeau@aol.com.