I am loving this new trend of top-dollar chefs opening second and third restaurants where they take a little bit off their fastball and have an under chef (here Matt Abdoo) on the premises doing the cooking. These second restaurants are supposed to be cheaper, but they often aren’t cheap. What’s been great about the second restaurants is that they have more focus and consistency. When the executive chef takes something off his or her fastball, control improves. In this case, the big formaggio is Marc Orfaly (so it’s MarcO, is it?), whom we usually see putting out elaborately presented French food at Pigalle. Here he designed a menu of strictly Italian food (pan-Italian, though: that’s the Roman idea), and the results are terrific.
Food starts with incredible extra-virgin olive oil and some oily Tuscan bread. A soup of the day, minestrone ($6), raised all of our expectations because of the clear vegetable flavors (starting with a thin but delicious tomato–summer-squash broth) and just a bit of cheese. The bowl was a real bowl, not one of those giant-rimmed soup chillers. On our day, Fritto misto del giorno ($10) was a couple of medium-size arancini with cheese centers, two meatballs, and three smaller salt-cod fritters. Arancini means “oranges,” and these were nicely browned but trending to the shape of croquettes and the volume of clementines. The meatballs and the marinara dipping sauce were impeccable. The codfish fritters were just a little bready and funky for my taste, but no problem.
To check out the pasta, we split a small order of tagliatelli Bolognese ($18; $9/half order). This was the homemade pasta of the day, and it was extraordinary. These wide ribbons of homemade pasta maintain a degree of chew and a wheaty flavor that simply cannot be equaled. The meat sauce, lightened with veal or pork, was classically simple and effective. Even the small bowl of the half order was quite filling. You could make a hearty dinner of the soup followed by pasta this good.
Entrées here are “secondi,” in the Italian style, but you could certainly use a pasta as an entrée without going hungry, and only trained eaters or professional athletes should attempt all four courses, despite the temptations of a $55 prix-fixe menu. Our fish of the day (market price) was pan-seared striped bass ($29), and it was again superb fish, served on a caper-dressed salad with a lot of cherry tomatoes — almost like salsa against the meaty fish — instead of the cliché platform of starch. A pork-chop entrée ($25) was a two-inch chop, something like oven-fried with a crispy bread-crumb coating. It had an excellent juicy flavor (despite very little fat), slices of oven-fried potatoes, and deep-fried slices of pickled peppers — a kind of sly comment on the popular pork chop with vinegar peppers served all over the North End.
The wine list is all Italian and frankly pricey, but you won’t regret the house wines judging by the current red, a 2003 Sicilian Colosi Rosso ($8/glass; $14/half-liter; $25/liter). I think the half-liter and liter sizes work a little better for two or four people who like wine with food. The wine itself is a little soft but not showing any alcohol, and it’s loaded with black-cherry fruit — a lot like restaurant house wines in Italy. The house wines are served in odd conical tumblers; real bottles get real wine glasses. Decaf coffee ($3) and espresso ($3) were both excellent.
If there is a weak course at Marco, it is dessert, where the chef has not allowed his imagination to run far beyond the norm. Chocolate panna cotta ($7) was nice enough, with a bitter chocolate layer for those who need it and handsome slices of blood orange set around. Tiramisu ($6) is served in a stem glass and layered more carefully than most in the North End. You might guess that a French chef owns the restaurant. But the flavor is simple and sweet.
Service at Marco is pleasant but can lag when the room gets full, as it usually does pretty early. (These second restaurants get more buzz from the name of an established chef than the same chef had when making the first big move.) The room also gets louder as it fills, although it’s too small to get really loud, even with bare-brick and yellow-stucco walls, polished wood floors, and a semi-open kitchen. The second-floor location is no friend to the disabled, but it makes for a nice view of Hanover Street and a light feeling even when seated away from the windows.
Marco Cucina Romana | 253 Hanover St, Boston | Tues-Thurs, 5:30-10 pm; Fri-Sat, 5:30-11 pm; Sun, 4-9:30 pm | AE, MC, VI | valet parking $14 | up a full flight of stairs from street level | 617.742.1276
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Robert Nadeau: RobtNadeau@aol.com