You know you’ve found great cavatelli, small shell-shaped pasta designed to hold sauce in its folds, when it takes several bites before you realize that the guy at the table behind you has planted an elbow in your back, and then you have just one more forkful before scooting your chair out of the way.
I recently found just such a dish at Aria Trattoria in the North End, in the second-floor spot where Marco once was located. It’s a small space, narrow and not particularly long, with three windows over the street and a busy open kitchen in back. The room is softly lit, and many of the folks I came across on recent visits seemed to be there for romantic purposes.
(The man with the elbow, I should point out, had plenty of space at his table: This wasn’t a floor-plan problem. And I’m sure he had a perfectly good reason to keep his back to the wall and his eyes on the door. He and his friends were really quite entertaining. Maybe Aria brings them in for ambience. Maybe he really is the kind of guy who throws his elbows around. Who knows?)
Chef Clayton Goncalves, who was at Marco for years and stayed when Massimo Tiberi opened this restaurant in January, offers plenty of dishes as good as the chewy cavatelli, handmade in Everett by Lilly’s Fresh Pasta, which he serves with lamb ragu, plenty of slivers of mint, and peas. The peas, which make an appearance in a very good sweet succotash on another plate, would be a delightful part of this pasta if they were not overdone and pretty flavorless here. While a lot on this menu is good, there are a number of dishes that, like the ragu, would benefit from just a little more care.
Other pastas, several of which are made at the restaurant, are as satisfying. Lobster fra diavolo stands out because the broth-like sauce is so full of lobster flavor with tasty hunks of shellfish claw and tail meat, the soft, housemade tagliolini noodles — they’re long, flat, and about a quarter-inch wide — so clearly fresh.
Ravioli con funghi comes with a pile of just-warm oyster mushrooms and escarole as well as fresh pasta pillows filled with roasted mushrooms, parsley, and mascarpone. On one night, a dining companion wishes Aria had matched a creamy sauce with the mushroom ravioli, but I disagree: The white wine-based sauce sews together the light, fresh flavors, especially the escarole and mushrooms.
And then there’s bucatini all’ amatriciana. This is a wonderful bowl of thick pasta tubes wrapped around large cubes of pancetta that have been fried until the fat starts to brown and crisp. They’re in a tomato sauce that’s big, too: sweet, acidic, full of flavor. You could get a half order of this dish (or most of the pastas) as a starter, then go on to try another main course. Or you could get a full order and call it a meal. Basically, you can’t lose with this dish.
For a lighter start, arugula salad is dressed with olive oil and lemon, dotted with halved grape tomatoes, and slivers of salty Parmesan. Sop up any extra juices with a slice of the bread Aria brings in from Bricco Panetteria next door. Grilled artichokes, while they’re a good idea, are actually less successful. The dish is made with marinated artichokes that taste canned and are notable because the vegetables are grill-marked, rather than battered and fried in oil. This is a welcome departure, at least to me, from the popular North End preparation. They come on a bed of escarole dressed with a sherry-vinegar vinaigrette.
The menu’s “secondi” are huge. Osso buco is a large dish with plenty of succulent pork, a chunky tomato-carrot-celery sauce, and two large triangles of herb-loaded, buttery, oven-crisped polenta.
A simple plate of grilled chicken is presented with a large escarole salad, the grilled artichokes, and a great side called Yia Yia’s Potatoes: roasted with smoked paprika and oregano, just enough fuss to make them special. The recipe comes from Tiberi’s mother-in-law, who is Greek. The veal chop is impressive, dramatic, and served medium, as the kitchen recommends.
On one night, I watch a fellow diner send back the daily special Atlantic salmon just after it is delivered to her table. She had only broken the fillet with her fork, hadn’t had a bite. Watching (and catching the aromas) as her plate moved back and forth across the dining room I almost regretted my not-yet-arrived choice of lobster pasta.
On another night, the special was salmon again. I got it and it was cooked beautifully, a little dark pink inside, the skin crispy and the flesh still moist, served with a succotash of corn, peas (this time so sweet-tasting), pea tendrils, and fava beans. My bet is that on the earlier night, the diner decided she didn’t want her fish quite that pink (her mistake, not the kitchen’s).
But this kitchen can make mistakes — and so can the all-Italian wine cellar. There are 12 wines by the glass, all priced between $8 and $13, and since there’s a lively scene at the small bar, it seemed safe enough to order that way. Nebbiolo wasn’t special, just dry-plum flavored and with enough body to be right with the salmon. Earlier, with a salad and some pastas, we had tried the bar’s verdicchio, which was grassy and floral and dry, and had more to offer in the way of those mingled flavors than your average California chardonnay. A $13 glass of Chianti Classico on one night came out slightly corked, however (a second glass, served to a different diner and clearly from a different bottle, was pleasing enough). And on another visit, a red wine off-menu special came from a new bottle and was also corked, and quickly replaced by a server.
Service is friendly but never too much, and as far as I can tell, the kitchen, wait staff, and managers are entirely male. On one night we were greeted at the door downstairs and brought all the way into the dining room and to our table by the same person, who seated us in front of the gas fire.
On another night our server, after presenting two dessert options, which we were having trouble narrowing to one actual plate, offered to surprise us. We accepted and were delighted with a warm pear-frangipane tart (from Modern Pastry, another Hanover Street neighbor).
By that time, the elbows had moved on. We relaxed into our chairs, finished our wine, and enjoyed dessert.