Enthusiasts have described Tartufo as a taste of the North End moved out to Newton. This is not a bad analogy, for it covers both its strengths and its weaknesses. The strengths are what made the Abruzzese chefs of the old North End great: excellent seafood selections, a mild red sauce that picks up the character of each dish, fine homemade pasta, servers who know what the kitchen is about, and plenty of delicious food on every platter. The weaknesses, just as I remember them, are the numerous unpriced specials that turn out to be more expensive than the menu dishes, a wine list without vintages, small wine glasses, overdone purchased pasta, and weak desserts. For many, this will conjure images of home. Yet for celebrations or for just dining in a celebratory way, Tartufo, which has a sister restaurant in Cambridge, certainly has the spirit of the North End, as well as some of its popularity.
NOT IN THE NORTH END ANYMORE: Tartufo Cucina Abruzzese is in Newton Center.
The bread basket is an improvement over much of the North End, even now. The key item is melting-hot glutinous, crusty bread. And there is also a denser, softer white bread for getting that last bit of sauce. The grilled calamari ($9.95) is an outstanding appetizer, with a mild taste of the fire but almost no rubber. You can also sample them in the antipasto di pesce ($12.95), which includes four white anchovies (like herring, only better), two fat and tasty New Zealand mussels, seeded green olives, and smoked salmon canapés.
Surprisingly, an old-fashioned appetizer like shrimp in cognac sauce ($9.95) is a signature dish here, and rightly so. The three large shrimp get just a bit of vanilla from the cognac — no alcohol — while remaining plump and juicy, not a bit overcooked. Mussels al guazetto ($8.95) is also an obvious dish, but it triumphs on the strength of wonderfully plump orange mussels. The sauce is made with garlic and wine: good later with bread, but unobtrusive.
Minestrone Abruzzese ($6.95) is a pure product of vegetables: summer squash, beans, tomatoes, carrots, potato, and maybe a little green gourd. It’s honest but a little bland — I expected a bit of sausage or hot pepper or an offering of grated cheese. An appetizer of crab cakes ($9.95) is a double portion, somewhat bready but distinctively flavored by crab, with an excellent salad of arugula and shaved Parmesan.
From the menu, don’t miss the gnocchetti ($16.95). In Umbria, gnocchetti are as small as spaetzle; the Abruzzese version is the usual size of gnocchi, but much lighter. The sauce is a simple marinara with nice fresh ricotta. Ravioli of shrimp and lobster ($18.95) is another familiar dish done fabulously well. The pasta is striped black-and-white, so we know it is special, as is the seafood stuffing and the rich, creamy sauce, again with well-saturated alcohol.
“Guazzetto alla pescarese con gamberi & vongole” ($22.95), however, is not quite as good. It starts with a base of fully cooked linguine, rather limp stuff if you’ve been corrupted by the homemade pastas. The sauce picks up the flavor of excellent shrimp and clams in the shell, and you can certainly eat the seafood here happily, but this dish isn’t special. Merluzzo ($23.95) is another option if you want to take advantage of Tartufo’s seafood savvy. The buttery haddock is the kind you hardly get anymore, with decorative littleneck clams (small and tasty) and mussels (large and tasty), and a light sauce of garlic and oil.
Now about those specials. The sole special ($27.95) was reasonable, another fine large piece of local fish, with white sauce, red-bell-pepper flecks, olives, and shrimp, and a side of correctly cooked broccoli. The veal chop special ($34.95), though an enormous T-bone chop, would probably have been better without the ham-and-cheese stuffing. It added some flavor, but the chop came to the table somewhat dried out. Another old-fashioned sauce, sweet Marsala wine and mushrooms, helped considerably, as did an underlayment of roast-potato slices, carrots, zucchini, and broccoli florets. A third special, red snapper ($32.95), featured good non-local fish, neatly boned and presented with arugula and a wisp of sauce.
The wine list is fairly priced but starts at $28 and runs pretty quickly up to about $50, with special bottles as high as $280. Vintages aren’t listed, and I wanted a barbera not from the overheated 2003 vintage now on the market. However, this problem was resolved by the excellent waiter going over to the wine bin and finding a 2004 bottle of Barbera d’Asti from Stefano Farina ($32). It was all fruit, some length of flavor, still not quite as acidic as I wanted for the dinner, but certainly an easy wine to drink and enjoy.
Coffee ($2), decaf ($2), and decaf cappuccino ($3.50) were all fine, although it is odd to see a fine old-fashioned espresso machine with shiny new gauges and the eagle on top just sitting there as a wall decoration.