“Julia?” asks my friend when I tell her I’d made reservations at a new restaurant outside Harvard Square. “It takes a lot of nerve to name a restaurant for Julia Child in her hometown. Is it French?”
It’s Giulia (for the record, named after the street in Rome where chef Michael Pagliarini and his wife and co-owner, Pamela Ralston, decided to launch the restaurant) and it’s Italian. But like that other Julia, it’s warm, welcoming, sophisticated without being pretentious, and very, very good. Pagliarini, formerly of Back Bay’s Via Matta, works in a style that is faithful to principles of Italian cooking while adapting freely to take advantage of seasonal ingredients and his own vision. He’s innovative, but like the best new ideas, his are clearly steeped in understanding and respect for the tradition.
The former site of Rafiki Bistro is a long, stylish room made rustic by brick walls, wood tables set with colorful runners in reds and ambers, and warm lighting. A comfortable bar lines one wall and the well-lit open kitchen is the focus at the back. In front of it is a long farmhouse table of reclaimed white oak, where Pagliarini and crew prepare the fresh pastas. One night, it’s occupied by three generations of a family, aged from single digits to the 80s. Everybody looks equally at home; it’s that kind of place. Returning customers are greeted with a smiling “Good to see you again,” and everybody gets a “ciao” on their way out. The sound level is just right: lively but quiet enough for conversation.
Starters are divided into sfizi (quick bites) and antipasti. Try the warm semolina cakes with lardo: tiny, golden coins draped with a morsel of cured pork fat. Burrata di Puglia is a soft disk of fresh cheese contrasting nicely with the smokiness of charred peppers, sweetness of golden raisins, and crunch of pine nuts. It’s a familiar appetizer, but satisfying. The daily crostini are worth trying. We are particularly taken with the chicken livers one night, their rich creaminess offset by the bright crunch and heat of thin slices of raw red jalapeño. It’s a natural combination once you’ve tried it, but one new to me, and an example of the chef’s willingness to adapt a classic. Escarole with white beans and orange is nicely dressed with lemon and olive oil but almost overwhelmed by anchovies.
A small but interesting list of Italian wines is available. There are some familiar names (we loved the Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and the inky, fruity Primitivo) and some that may be new to you. Servers are knowledgeable without lecturing and enthusiastic about the entire menu. They’re also adept at suggesting wine pairings. Refreshingly, I am encouraged in my choice of the most affordable wine offered by the glass rather than nudged toward a pricier selection.
Wait staff also takes justifiable pride in the pastas, all beautiful and perfectly prepared. Portions are small but savory, sufficient as entrees for most appetites if accompanied by an appetizer. Pillowy, thin-skinned ravioli with veal breast, sweetbreads, and Swiss chard has a mellow filling set off by a simple fresh-tasting tomato sauce. Head-on shrimp are spiced with ginger and raw chilies in a bowl of al dente linguine. Best of all is pappardelle, a tangle of wide noodles covered with a rich, deeply satisfying sauce of wild boar, juniper berries, and trumpet mushrooms that tastes of the forests of Umbria.
For a relatively small selection of main dishes, Giulia shows an admirable range. Striped bass is snowy white and flakes delicately over a sweet Manila clam risotto lightly colored with tomato. Skate on the bone starts as a classic preparation, with lemon and salty capers highlighting the natural sweetness of the fish; earthy diced red beets add contrasting flavor, texture, and color. The plump house-smoked lamb sausage is set on gigante (literally, “gigantic”) white beans along with bitter greens and sweet diced pepper. It’s great in a bowl, but would be amazing on a sandwich.
Vermont quail has a crisp mahogany skin and a moist interior and is set alongside a salty pork sausage, wintry Umbrian lentils, and, for contrast, a dab of sweet parsnip puree. And for flat-out carnivores, there’s the big, bold flavor of the grass-fed beef alla fiorentina. The dish is a dream of a T-bone steak covered with a salsa verde of parsley, olive oil, and garlic with grilled lemon (and nothing else) on the side.
You might be tempted to stop there, but you’d be making a mistake because desserts at Giulia are every bit as good as what comes before. One night’s special, a hazelnut gelato topped with chocolate crumbs and toasted nuts is delicious enough before a demitasse of espresso is poured over. The sweet and bitter, astringent and creamy tastes make a memorable confection.
A surprisingly light olive oil citrus cake is topped with candied peel and whipped cream, accompanied by fresh blood orange. Chocolate terrine is good enough for the person ordering to “accidentally” forget a prior promise to share. So some of us miss a winning pairing of chocolate with coconut and vanilla ice cream. Best of all is pistachio gelato over marinated cherries, topped with toasted nuts, served with a traditional crisp pizzella. It’s rich, sweet, creamy, and just a little salty.
We overhear a woman at the next table sum it up. “It’s like sex on a spoon,” she says.
Now, that’s a statement the other Julia from Cambridge would applaud.