Thursday, November 13, 2008

Boston's North End: Vinoteca Di Monica

Review #3 of 3! And to say I saved the best for last would be no exaggeration!

Vinoteca Di Monica

Before going up to Boston for the weekend, I knew I wanted to eat in the North End, which is basically Boston's version of Little Italy. But as my husband said, it's not so little. There are so many restaurants in the North End you could literally spend hours trying to pick a place. Coming from Baltimore, we're used to our Little Italy, which by comparison is, well, little. Don't get me wrong, I love Baltimore's Little Italy and many of the restaurants it contains, but Boston's North End has so much more variety. It almost feels like you're walking down the street in Rome! Well, ok that may be a stretch, but it's truly a very colorful place in more ways than one.

Each establishment is so quaint and cute, some are very small with only 10 tables and others are more swanky with a new-age feel and menu. It also helps that the whole section of town smells like fresh bread and roasted garlic making you feel that no matter where you walk in you'll be getting a hearty meal. You can go as casual as a slice of pizza from a corner pizza parlor or as fancy as a five-star restaurant.

Fortunately, I did a bit of research before going to Boston in the hopes of finding a true gem in the North End. I wanted a place that was kind of modern but with classic dishes, homemade pastas, a good wine list and moderate prices, although I wasn't against splurging for something extra-special. I really think we found all of this at Vinoteca Di Monica.

We stepped in on Sunday evening. We had a reservation, but obviously didn't need it as the restaurant was sparsely populated. I think this had more to do with the fact that it was cold and a Sunday night more than anything else. The dining room is handsomely appointed in a simple, modern style. No checkered tablecloths and drippy wine bottle candles here. Light green, bright reds and oranges make up the color scheme. White tablecloths drape the tables and an open kitchen sits like a stage at the back of the restaurant. The bar area is separate and includes seats at the bar as well as a few high-top tables for a more casual experience.

On this night, the restaurant was offering a number of mouth-watering specials. An antipasta appetizer, grilled shrimp bruschetta, fresh ravioli filled with beef and thyme or wild mushrooms and gruyere cheese, braised short rib served over polenta, and a swordfish fillet. The wine list is several pages and actually, quite daunting for someone with even medium wine knowledge like myself. It's almost exclusively Italian wines from every region possible. In making the choice, I focused on price range, which may not always be the best approach but I had to narrow it down somehow.

We settled on a Montepulciano D'Abruzzo Riserva. The waiter was impressed with my random selection, as of over 250 bottles of wine on the menu I chose the only one that came adorned with a rubber seal stamp and it's own brochure attached to the bottle. Along with the wine, came a basket of chewy sourdough bread served with a garlicky white bean dip. The dip was very good - a nice change from butter or the traditional olive oil. It was flavored with rosemary, garlic and Parmesan cheese.

For appetizers we went with the special bruschetta and the involtini di prosciutto e provolone al forno - a regular menu item of prosciutto and provolone cheese wrapped around fresh mozzarella, baked till the prosciutto is crisp and served over tomato slices and roasted red peppers.

The bruschetta was delicious, if not a bit alarming at first as the three shrimp came with their heads attached. No matter though, they were cooked just right and covered in a rich tomato broth. The bread beneath was grilled to impart a smoky flavor and worked well to sop up the tomato broth. The involtini were just as delicious, the perfect combo of smokiness from the prosciutto, salt from the provolone and creaminess from the mozzarella. I would have liked to have seen more roasted red peppers on the plate simply because they were out of this world delicious and a personal favorite of mine.

Finally for the meal, my husband ordered the braised short rib special served over a mound of polenta. His face literally lit up at the rich meaty smell coming from his plate as the waiter placed it in front of him. The short rib was so tender it practically melted in your mouth. I haven't done much braising in my day, but damn it I"m going to start because that was delicious. It was covered with an aromatic chunky tomato sauce - you could really taste the wine, woodsy herbs, meat juices and slow cooked vegetables used in the braising process. It gave outstanding flavor to the meat and complimented the soft, buttery polenta as well.

I ordered the ravioli de aragosta, or lobster ravioli. The homemade pasta enveloped chopped pieces of lobster and was topped with a creamy lobster reduction sauce. It was a rich dish, but the portion size was exactly right. No Olive Garden pasta buckets here, which is how it should be if you ask me.

Our meal, as you can see, was very good. We ended the evening with a walk around the North End, which seems to exude even more charm at night with it's street lanterns, homey smells and the occasional Italian music lofting from the cafes and storefronts.

A crowd was bustling inside Mike's Pastry, . This large bakery specializes in Italian baked goods serving countless varieties of cookies, homemade cannolis, pies, cakes and even gelato. We walked in and bought ourselves a few cookies to enjoy back in the hotel room. But seriously, an Italian girl like myself could have spent hours in there just drooling over all the sweets.

So if you are in Boston, definitely don't miss out on the North End. It's almost like you get two trips in one, Boston and a taste of Italy.

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