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RUSTIC TRADITION

MEETS FINE DINING

photographed by Tino Iantosca

by Rachel Blumenthal

I

n the small ancient village of Prezza, perched in the mountainous central region of Italy, the diet lacks diversity. Villagers rely heavily on seasonal vegetables, pork and polenta. Chef Anthony Caturano’s grandmother was born there, and in honor of his family’s heritage, Caturano mixes rustic staples with a gourmet touch at his North End restaurant, Prezza. The ambiance is hardly reminiscent of a tiny village: smooth jazz, a glossy hard wood floorn and a mix of impressionist and modern paintings accent the beige interior. Tables are lit by candles in red votives, but the lighting isn’t so dim that you can’t read the menu. The attentive waiters refold your napkins each time you get up from the

table. Many diners are wearing jackets and ties, while others are in jeans. It is this balance between comfort and class that makes dining at Prezza such an enjoyable experience. The bread basket arrives; a modern steel container filled with homemade white bread and focaccia to be dipped in a generous portion of olive oil. Soon after, we receive our appetizers. The first is a plate covered from end to end with a long, thin slice of prosciutto. It’s topped with three thick slices of buffalo mozzarella, roasted red peppers, olive oil and aged balsamic, and it’s bursting with flavor. The mild mozzarella complements the salty prosciutto nicely, and the peppers and balsamic add a hint of sweetness. Next comes the crispy shrimp appetizer: three jumbo

shrimp, and I do mean jumbo, sit atop a bed of Italian slaw, and cherry pepper aioli is drizzled over the shrimp, which are wrapped in a crispy nest of phyllo . Our waiter, Nicholas, tells us that this is Prezza’s signature appetizer, and it has been on the menu since day one. Not surprisingly, it’s delicious, although I get a bit of a shock upon noticing two beady black eyes staring up at me. My dining companions assure me that this is the real Italian way of serving shrimp – leaving the head on – although most North End restaurants don’t follow this tradition. Prezza admirably remains true to its roots. Next, we sample two of Prezza’s handmade pasta dishes – one is a hearty gnocchi in a Bolognese sauce containing tender chunks of sirloin, and the other is sweet potato raviolini in a brown butter and sage sauce, topped with generous bits of crab meat and chopped hazelnuts. The gnocchi has a rustic feel to it, especially due to the sirloin, and the fact that it is made with “a little bit of love,” according to Nicholas. The sauce contains pecorino cheese and porcini cream, and its thick texture goes well with the small homemade gnocchi without being too overwhelming. The raviolini is more of a delicate dish, and it is so sweet that it could almost pass for a dessert. The hazelnuts add a satisfying crunch and the brown butter sauce is silky and smooth. Prezza’s pasta dishes can be ordered as either an appetizer or an entrée. I could certainly make a meal out of an appetizer portion of the raviolini and a huge bowl of gnocchi. Another time, perhaps. We have some other entrées to taste. The first entrée is a large piece of roasted halibut served with sunchoke puree and red wine braised lentils, which are supposed to bring good luck. The halibut is full of flavor, and the sunchoke puree has a light enough texture that it doesn’t weigh down the fish. Our final entrée immediately becomes the table’s favorite dish of the eve-

ning – a slow-braised lamb shank with mushroom polenta accompanied by a watercress and feta salad. Nicholas tells us that the lamb shank at Prezza is always braised for at least five hours, and its tenderness confirms it. A knife isn’t necessary. The mushroom polenta – the solid, baked kind, not the mushy kind – is delicious, which is a pleasant surprise for me. I typically avoid mushrooms at all costs, but upon my dining companions’ urging, I take a bite and find that the flavors mesh well together and the texture is enjoyable, similar to potato kugel. Although I doubt any of us have much room for another course, dessert chef Brittany Suhan brings us two delectable goodies: limoncello cheesecake and chocolate bread pudding. The cheesecake is a dense, heavenly mixture of cream cheese, mascarpone and limoncello sitting on a biscotti crust and topped with a vanilla glaze, lemon zest and fresh blueberries. The dark and white chocolate bread pudding could be a meal on its own. Regular bread isn’t good enough for Suhan’s bread pudding. Instead, she uses croissants. And she doesn’t stop there. The bread pudding is topped with a cappuccino sauce and chocolate marble ice cream. This dessert is dense, moist and utterly sinful, especially the dark chocolate base. I’m glad I found room for a few bites. Although we didn’t drink wine with our meal, I should mention Prezza’s impressive wine list, which is thirty pages long and boasts a 2008 Wine Spectator Award of Excellence. The list includes wines from all over the world, especially from Italy, France and the United States. If you’re looking for a fine dining experience in the North End that is classy without pretension, try Prezza. Even the most gourmet dishes contain ingredients that bring to mind the rustic old mountain village of Prezza, and these hearty italian flavors are what allow the menu to strike a balance between comfort food and epicurean delight.

In the small ancient village of Prezza, perched in the mountainous central region of Italy, the diet lacks diversity. Villagers rely heavily on seasonal vegetables, pork and polenta.