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Rialto hits niche but misses the mark


Overall Rating: B

Who knew that everyday pasta and pizza could be chic? Eating good Italian food in Boston is not necessarily limited to the North End, where oven−baked ziti is presented in a hot skillet that’s twice as large as your face, where pizzas slide out of the oven onto your plate, and where semi−intoxicated musicians serenade you with boisterous tunes then field you sympathetic stares to get a few dollars out of your pocket.

Take a break from the authentic atmosphere and opt for some modern fine−dining Italian venues for Restaurant Week, a two−week−long promotional event that will end this Friday. A gourmand’s heaven for expensive food at a fraction of the price, Restaurant Week offers a two−course lunch for $15.11, a three−course lunch for $20.11 and a three−course dinner for $33.11 at select restaurants.

With literally dozens of options to choose from, one is spoiled for choice, but the first picks often come from Boston’s cream of the crop. Rialto — housed in the historic Charles Hotel, just minutes away from the Harvard T stop — holds a spot on the Zagat list of most popular Boston restaurants, alongside L’Espalier, No. 9 Park and Oishii, among others. But does it make the mark?

In keeping with the classic−meets−modern image, Chef Jody Adams’ restaurant fuses bold themes of Siena and Tuscany in its decor, with semi−opaque sheer curtains, plush chairs, clean wooden parquet floors, white window shutters, a white marble island bar and sleek leather booths. One of the main dining rooms features a nearly 360−degree view of Harvard Square, so book early to get a table by the window.

For Restaurant Week, Rialto offers four dishes to choose from for each course. A small salad of hearty greens has a mixture of crisp and peppery leaves, lightly dressed by a sherry maple vinaigrette that packs less punch than an olive oil and lemon vinaigrette. The subtle acidity, however, is refreshing. There are medjool dates, dizzyingly sweet and rich, that dictate the “hearty” factor of the salad, while some flavorful yet subtle shavings of Pecorino Romano give it a dreamy robustness.

Such a deceptively simple salad is evidence of the fresh, exotic ingredients Rialto prides itself on using. Cured ham, for example, is flown in from La Quercia. It is smokier than your average Parma ham variety and is served alongside delicately grilled asparagus, salsa verde and aged goat cheese.

Adams accomplishes a similar feat in using fresh ingredients with a simple “early spring” minestrone. Eschewing the common elements of a heavy tomato−based stew, the minestrone only needs light pesto, some beans and a sprinkling of toasted pine nuts for texture. Otherwise, the basic elements remain: onions, carrots, celery and other basic vegetables diced so precisely and uniformly that they put some Japanese sushi−masters to shame.

Served either alongside or before the appetizers is a basket of bread, tall enough to induce awkward conversation exchanges. The fare is normal: generic breadsticks and pieces of hard−rolls that might require some finger exercises to pry open. Where are the bread plates? We’re back in Italy again, forced to consume the bread and drop crumbs on the table as though it’s a kindergarten art project. Nevertheless, the accompanying extra−virgin olive oil and mound of sea salt on the side are nice additions.

One might want to stock up on bread, as the main courses follow the sophisticated big plate, small food trend. Don’t ask for a second helping of “floppy” tomato lasagna, either. Ricotta and béchamel flank layers of the lasagna, but the tomato element remains a mystery, and the pasta lacks flavor. It is served with an artful paint of basil emulsion — peppery, garlicky and almost addictive — but even that can’t save a dish that’s the size of a mouse.

Avoid the sloppy travesty and opt instead for the lamb leg, perfectly roasted and justifiably pink and tender without being gamey. Peas come in the form of a bright green puree, strained to perfection, and complement the meat much better than the usual mint−rosemary relish, as do the “grains of paradise”: pancetta crumbs that crackle faintly and are reminiscent of those salty, preservative−filled condiments. Pity, though, that the baked baby potatoes bear similarities to the dining−hall variety: balls of bland starch that add unnecessary inches to the circumference of one’s thighs. At least the raw side of mache salad and enoki mushrooms will alleviate those nutritional worries.

Desserts fare better, but sweetness is, after all, a virtue. A macadamia caramel tart, for example, tests the limits of how much sugar one can take. Nothing about it screams innovation, but the crust is beautifully crisp, and the banana rum sauce warm and heavenly. Share another comforting dish of chocolate torta, a rich, bittersweet slice of decadence. Adams does not hold back on the guilt−filled calories associated with the dish, as it’s offered with espresso “bombolini”: sugary, mini doughnuts that are more pillow−soft than Dunkin’ Donuts’ Munchkins.

Dieting? There’s always the “healthy” dessert selection, which in this case comes in the form of a pineapple and coconut sorbet: cool, refreshing and tangy. However, the fruits appear a few hours past their frozen prime and are congealed into spherical rocks, which are almost as hard as the accompanying tuile of toasted coconut biscuit.

At most fine−dining establishments, striving for perfection usually results in a successful achievement, but not so much at Rialto. Spend your $40 elsewhere, or if you’re already in the vicinity of Harvard, ten cups of drinking chocolate from L.A. Burdick should fill you up as nicely.

One Bennett Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
(617) 661-5050

– Jon Cheng

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