ZUPPA DI CLAMS Makes a big impression in a dozen little bites.
We Americans think of Italian food as the bountiful, overloaded tables of Italian-American immigrants, and the family restaurants they run all over the US. But when we travel to Italy, we find small plates and fashionably skinny Italians splitting dishes in four courses. Damiano,
describing its theme as "Italian tapas," tries to balance these styles. Dishes are a little smaller than the Italian norm, but two or three will fill you up. There are no desserts or coffees, since Mike's Pastry is right outside the window, across Hanover Street.
RISTORANTE DAMIANO | 307–309 Hanover Street, Boston | 617.742.0020 | Winter hours: closed Monday; open Sunday 12–9 pm; Tuesday–Thursday, 5–9:30 pm; Friday, 5–11:30pm; and Saturday, 12–11:30pm | Spring/summer hours: open Sunday –Thursday, 12–2:30pm and 5–10:30 pm; Friday and Saturday, 12–2:30 pm and 5–11:30 pm | AE, MC, VI | beer and wine | street-inclined access | No valet parking
You could structure something like a meal here, but the idea is to enjoy the small plates as they come. Salads are apt to be served before pastas, anyway, and those before protein. The first thing we had on a cold night was a complimentary demitasse of cream of potato and parmesan soup. It tasted like hot cream. A winter caprese ($13) featured tomatoes that had been marinated and worked over, with super-soft, ultra-fresh mozzarella, and greenhouse basil shreds and basil oil. An ahi tuna salad ($15) brought three pieces of seared tuna wrapped in a toasted tortilla — dotted with mayonnaise and made to look like sushi — and an arugula salad on the side.
Three golf-ball-size Sicilian tuna meatballs ($12) were my favorite hot new platter, as the hip disc jockeys used to say. The tuna was so meaty they might have been veal balls, with pine nuts worked in for moments of crunch, and a sharp, sweet-sour sauce with capers and tomato. Reserve some of the sauce for the soft, simple white rolls provided — they soak it up well. The beans unfortunately weren't cooked through in what would have been an otherwise fine braised escarole and white beans special ($9). The chef gets a point for making the beans from scratch, but loses two for forgetting that they won't soften in an acidic medium, such as tomato sauce.
There was no such issue with another favorite, baby eggplant ($12), since the slices of eggplant were meltingly tender, done up with bread crumbs and just enough tomato sauce for it to taste like the best-ever eggplant parm. (It was almost as filling, too.) Zuppa di pesce has here been simplified to a heap of zuppa di clams ($12): littlenecks in an intense garlic broth. This looks big, but illustrates one principle of small plates — it is too strongly flavored to enjoy as an entrée. Still, it makes an impression in a dozen bites.
Pastas are very much prepared in the Italian style. Penne capricciose ($12) is al dente, with a cream sauce that sticks to each penne and some dandy braised leeks. Maltagliatti ($15), described as "misshapen pasta," are random triangles cut from ribbons of homemade pasta, and presented in a rich braise of beef short-rib meat. This is the deep savor of Italian food that we love.
Still not full? Well, you could roll across the street for some cannoli, but a wild-mushroom risotto ($12) is another rich little dish. I think the wild mushrooms are dried, and the rice is not al dente (which I personally endorse in risotto), but the vital wine, cheese, and stock flavors hold their own against the mushrooms.
The wine list is mostly Italian and fairly and interestingly priced in groups. Omaka Spring 2007 sauvignon blanc ($12 glass/$40 bottle) is a pine-pineapple kind of white, less floridly tropical than the New Zealand average, but all the better with food. Monte Luce merlot 2005 ($8/$30) is soft with some smoke from the oak barrels, but still quaffable. A 2005 Montefalco montepulciano ($16/$55) is serious wine, with structure, cherry-berry fruit, and a backbone that works with the meatier dishes — which top out at a $25 mini version of steak Rossini. Nero d'avolo Pojo di Lupo ($16/$55), from the same great vintage, is Sicily's response to the montepulciano, and another big red for big flavors.
Damiano is located in a tiny duplex storefront, with exposed brick, Tuscan yellow walls, and a very tall café window. It's good for service, but not ideal for winter drafts. You may want to keep a sweater on if you are seated near the door. The tables are small, and one wonders where everything will go, but servers paced us well and shuffled plates in and out. The tasty food kept us moving along, as well, so there was no friction.
Noise doesn't get impossible, despite a techno soundtrack and a full house on a weekend evening. The small restaurant works in favor of the customer in at least two ways: less escapes the chef in the undersize kitchen; and the distance from stove to table is reduced. We hope it works for the owners, too. (Is it just me, or did our young, articulate waiter perhaps work in financial services last year? There was something of the young wealth advisor about him as he described the menu . . .)
Robert Nadeau can be reached at email@example.com.