Restaurant Week is an event which showcases a number of Boston restaurants offering special dining promotions of three-course lunches and dinners for fixed prices of $20.07 and $33.07 respectively. The idea is for people to visit the city and try restaurants they normally wouldn’t visit. It’s a great idea. On paper.
So I go into Boston the weekend before last dying to tryout a new place for dinner. I pick up a friend in the late afternoon and we took a stroll up Charles Street, walk across that bridge that connects Cambridge & the West End, and back again. It seemed like the entire time we were walking we volleyed back and forth: Chinese or Italian? Steak or seafood? Sushi or Indian? French or Ethiopian? Creole or Greek? What do you want? I don’t know. What do you want? Whatever you want. Seriously, what do you want? I don’t care. Well just pick something! You pick something. Come on. Why can’t you pick something? Cause it doesn’t really matter to me. Same here. Well, where do you NOT want to go. I don’t know. I hate it when you can’t make a decision. Well it sucks when you’re harshing on me for not picking something when you can’t pick something either. FUCK!
We’ve all been there …
The indecisive banter continues … what neighborhood we should dine in rather than the food type? Alston or Fenway? South End or Kendall Square? Financial District or Harvard Square? She says, Back Bay! I say, I hate the Back Bay, nothing but a bunch of banker/lawyer clowns talking about their weekends with Muffy on The Island. I say Theater District. She says there’s nothing but bums over there. I’m like, it’s not as bum infested as pretty much all of downtown San Francisco. We both chuckle. What happened next seems like a simultaneous stroke of genius on both our parts. A complete rarity. It was staring us right in the face and neither of us knew it. All of a sudden we look at each other and say, synchronously, “North End!!” Hells yeah! Probably one of the few things we agreed on all day.
We cruise over to the North End and discover half of the North End streets were closed down for the Saint Agrippina di Mineo Feast. It looked cool. They had a bunch of street vendors serving food, selling jewelry and offering carnival style games. There was a stage where some old fat Italian guy was belting out Volare. He had a pretty good voice. The feast was pretty small considering how much of the neighborhood was blocked off. I was like, they screwed up traffic for this? The upside was that we could walk around in the streets and not worry about being plowed by a cement truck.
The North End is by far my favorite area of Boston. It’s known as Boston’s Little Italy, but has had numerous ethnic groups occupying its borders since it’s inception as Boston’s first official settlement and oldest residential community. Plenty of big U.S. cities have some sort of “Little Italy” area or district. In Manhattan there’s Mullberry Street. In San Francisco there’s North Beach. Mullberry street was a nice experience. But in San Francisco’s North Beach isn’t all that. You wouldn’t even know it was a Little Italy if it weren’t for a few tattered Italian flags hanging from the light poles. Italian restaurants down there suck. Pinocchio’s, Molinari’s, Tosca, Vesuvio, Cafe Zeotrope and CaffÃ© Greco are great, fun places, but everything else is for the birds. Don’t waste your time in The Steps of Rome. I guess it’s a cool place for faux Italian’s to hang out and watch soccer, but most of the guys in there are Persians sporting brightly colored European soccer shirts and wearing sunglasses at night.
Anyway, I love the North End. It has a true Italian vibe going. I know, I spent two consecutive summers in Italy. As you walk down the street you pass by dozens of tiny Italian restaurants and pastry/coffee shops. You smell garlic one second. Espresso the next. Over and over. I love it! We’ve dined at Florentine Cafe more times than I can count. The Daily Catch is, well a catch! Il Panino Express, great sandwiches. Lucca, amazing!
We decided to try something new. Wandering around aimlessly, we wanted to find a nice place where we could dine at the bar and watch the Red Sox game. And preferably someplace with large open windows. The weather was amazing. We walk past a place called Bacco. It looked nice, menu was reasonably priced, had a bar, a TV, wide open windows facing the sun, smokin’ hot hostess … Perfect!
We grab a seat at the bar and I say, mango martini for me and a cosmo for my lady friend. The service was a bit slow considering on how dead it was and how many people they had behind the bar. We sipped our drinks, watched the game, made fun of people walking past the windows, under our breath. The menu looked good. Wine list was fair. I asked what the daily fresh seafood was that came with their Frutti di Mare. He said that they weren’t serving the full menu due to Restaurant Week. I really didn’t understand what Restaurant Week was all about. He handed me a sheet of paper with the special Restaurant Week menu. I was all like, why the hell did he give us the full menus, let us look at them for 15 minutes, then wait to tell us we can’t order off it and then finally hand us a significantly smaller menu. Stupid.
That’s when I learned about the “pre fixe” menu baloney. We’d get an appetizer, main course and dessert for $33. They had only a few selections for main courses and none were the Frutti di Mare I was all ready for. Turns out this fixed price menu only saved us about four bucks. Basically a free dessert. This wasn’t much of a value to me since I rarely eat dessert, and when I do, never in the same restaurant I had dinner. I like going for a walk and finding another place to sit and have some coffee and a cannoli. Irritated, we decide to stay and order anyway since probably every other restaurant has the same deal.
I can only think that some guy was saying … “I got an idea! Let’s get drum up interest in local restaurants by limiting all the menus!” “BRILLIANT!!”, the Guinness guy replies. One argument was that if you have fixed prices, people can go to some of the more expensive participating restaurants and try out their food at a bargain basement price. This argument is weak. Read on …
I order the Caprese salad with vine ripened tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and basil as my appetizer. I selected the Veal Florentine with seared spinach, pignoli, fontina cheese, pan seared gnocchi, and a vermouth glaze as my entrÃ©e. My friend ordered Prosciutto di Parma with warm grilled pears, gorgonzola and balsamic vinegar for her app. Chicken Marsala with wild Mushrooms and polenta for her main course. As for the wine, Bramosia Chianti for her; Buckeley Shiraz for me.
It took about twenty minutes for the appetizers to arrive. As customary we split the apps. Everything was fine with the apps except for there was no basil on my Caprese salad. It was on a bed of field greens. No basil in sight. The workers seemed pretty busy, so I over looked it. I don’t understand why they were so busy though. The place was dead. I think there was an upstairs part, but no noise was coming from up there. And they kept bringing out trays and trays of clean glasses to stock behind the bar. I’m all like, this place is dead, who the hell is dirtying all these glasses?
So the food comes. Now, I’m very picky, yet very tolerant when it comes to dining out, if that makes any sense. The veal was tough and fatty. Obviously not a good cut of meat. Gnocchi was cold. As was the spinach and the vermouth glaze. My first instinct was to send it back, but I was so freaking hungry I couldn’t wait for them to fix it. My friend asked for a bite of my dinner. I gave her a slice off the one side that was warmer than the other. If she knew it was cold, she wouldn’t have let me sit there and not ask for them to fix it. Honestly, I just wanted to get out of there. I had a bite of her chicken marsala. Pretty good. We wolf down the complementary tiramisu and bailed out. What sucked more was that my tiramisu was partially frozen on one half and almost room temperature on the other.
It’s my conclusion that the restaurants weren’t trying that hard to push out quality meals in the Restaurant Week pricing format. I can’t imagine that the real expensive places would give you $100 food for $33. Then again, I only sampled one place. The net-net of it all … Bacco sucks. However, the wine was great.
We leave Bacco and there was some sort of random marching band across the street. Pretty cool.
We’re walking back towards Hanover Street and we walk by a restaurant called Trattoria il Panino e Giardino. It smelled so awesome walking by. They had a great little outdoor garden dining area. That’s going to be my next dining experience in the North End I assure you. We’re walking up Hanover street looking for a quiet bar to watch the rest of the Sox game. We pass Mike’s Pastry. This place has some of the best pastries, cannolis, cookies and Italian bread you will ever find. It’s nearly impossible for you to walk anywhere in the North End and not see people carrying white & blue Mike’s Pastry boxes tied up with twine. I love it!
After wandering around for ten minutes we end up at the Waterfront Cafe on Commercial Street near the Coast Guard station. Awesome little Italian pub with an excellent selection of beers. Flat screen TVs everywhere! We finished watching the game. The Red Sox won, 4-3!
I took a picture of the vending machine in the bathroom. With a pretty girl in the bar, awesome beer on tap, Sox on TV, gorgeous weather, and this stuff in the vending machine … what more do you need? Yankees suck!