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Cheap Eats

In Marblehead, Italian food and an intimate setting

Charlie Mahoney for The Boston Globe

Christine and Peter Jones chat over dinner with friends at Yannalfo’s.

Charlie Mahoney for The Boston Globe

Bruschetta.

Years ago, Andover native Brett Yannalfo dated a girl from Marblehead. He was charmed by her hometown, but noticed that the sleepy seaside community closes down early. “If it was 10 o’clock and I said, do you want to grab a drink, there weren’t that many options for us,” he says.

So when he opened Yannalfo’s Ristorante in September, not only did he choose Marblehead for the location, he decided to give the area a romantic late-night option. Thursday through Saturday, the restaurant closes its kitchen at 10 p.m., but continues serving drinks and dessert until midnight.

Charlie Mahoney for The Boston Globe

The shrimp and lobster dish pappardelle alla Yannalfo.

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“If you’ve been out on a date, if you’ve gone to a movie, instead of going to a bar, it’s kind of a nicer option,” he says. “I’ll go to a bar for a drink with a friend, but if I was on a date, I’d probably go to a place a little nicer.”

The ambience is date-night appropriate. A warm front cove features six wide windows of varying sizes overlooking quiet Washington Street. A dining room with private booths and table seating abuts a small, intimate bar. Locals fill up the place on a Friday night, pushing wait times for walk-ins past an hour.

Yannalfo entered the restaurant game after years in the business world and with no food service experience, a fact he doesn’t dance around. If anything, he says, years of dining out for business informed him of what makes a good customer experience. He says he trusts his chefs to curate the menu and then tastes the dishes from the perspective of a consumer.

For moderately priced Italian food, the menu ranges from excellent to inconsistent. The first wave of appetizers is uneven. Lobster crostini ($8.95) is decent but not worth ordering again. Four pieces of bruschetta ($6.95), decoratively drizzled with balsamic vinaigrette, are fantastic but far too skimpy. A side salad ($2.95), however, tilts the opposite way. Despite the tiny price tag, it’s large enough to be a meal and quite good with housemade dressing over mesclun greens (you can also order romaine hearts).

The inconsistency continues with entrees. Two pasta dishes suffer from overly runny sauces. Chicken Marsala ($16.95), which arrives with a side of pasta, is tasty but the sauce isn’t as thick as we’re expecting, so it doesn’t stick to the linguine (penne, angel hair, or pappardelle are other options). Chicken, ziti, and broccolini ($14.95) presents the same problem as the Marsala, served with a thin Alfredo sauce that immediately drains off the pasta.

The pros strongly outweigh the cons in several other pasta dishes. Mushroom ravioli ($14.95) is packed with the funghi, both inside the pasta and in the surrounding sauce. It disappears quickly. Shrimp primavera ($18.95) is excellent, despite being light on vegetables and seafood. Pasta Milano ($15.95), another vegetable medley, packs in sauteed tomatoes, garlic, onions, mushrooms, olives, and peas. It’s one of the highlights of the menu.

Pappardelle alla Yannalfo ($18.95), our waiter tells us, is the restaurant’s most popular dish. It lives up to its reputation with shrimp and lobster chunks combined with portobello mushrooms in a vodka-tomato-cream sauce. Yannalfo buys fresh pasta from Everett-based Lilly’s Gourmet Pasta.

Yannalfo is still tinkering with the menu and figuring out a seasonal rotation. A dessert of pumpkin caramel mousse ($6) should stick around through Thanksgiving, he says, which is a relief. It’s creamy and rich with caramel around the edges, and makes a great finale to the meal. Or, as Yannalfo hopes, the perfect complement to a late-night drink for people stopping in after service.

Glenn Yoder can be reached at gyoder@globe.com.
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