Food & dining

Viale adds flavor and character to Central Square

Cambridge, MA - 12\11\14 - Duck cappellacci at Viale in Central Square. Lane Turner/Globe Staff Section: LIV Reporter: Devra First Slug: 17din
Lane Turner/Globe Staff
Duck cappellacci at Viale.

A neighborhood’s restaurants tell its story. Central Square, like all places, changes with the times. It has a little more polish, a little less grit. But it is still one of our most creatively thinking, commercially diverse, character-filled, and real neighborhoods. (The music that happens here is still often live. In a preprogrammed, Pandora’d world, that means something.) Hi-Fi Pizza & Subs closes, and fortifying late-night grease gives way to chickpea fritters at a planned 24-hour Clover. Dining magnets like Craigie on Main thrive, yet the cluster of Indian restaurants with similar menus, prices, and atmosphere hangs on. The Flours and Area Fours join the Falafel Palaces and Brookline Lunches. A Burger King becomes Rendezvous, mass-market fast food supplanted by a chef-owned, Mediterranean-influenced restaurant with a singular point of view.

And then Rendezvous closes and becomes Viale. The restaurant, opened in October, is a worthy successor. The Mediterranean flavors and the point of view remain. There is a new emphasis on Italy, and an even stronger emphasis on the bar. The place feels a little more casual, a little more youthful — which is not to say young. This is still a restaurant where grown-ups feel welcome, run by a seasoned team. Chef-owner Greg Reeves, previously at Pier 6 and La Brasa, spent years cooking at Green Street. Who better to understand Central Square? Co-owner Mark Young worked there, too, as well as at Spoke in Somerville. And bar manager Patrick Gaggiano (Fairsted Kitchen, Trina’s Starlite Lounge) is one of the most genial, generous cocktail slingers in town.

The menu is just the right size, neither limiting nor overreaching. There is crowd-pleasing pizza, but only two kinds, with additions sometimes appearing as specials. Get the charred, thin crust topped with a minimalist slick of marinara, a sprinkling of cheese, and a shaving of scallions — a margherita pared down to big, essential flavors, a reminder of how not gooey pizza needs to be to satisfy. Or go in the opposite direction with a pie topped in fried calamari with parsley, hot peppers, and chile oil — a little bit Italian, a little bit New England, a little bit Sichuan in its effect.

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The kitchen here is at its best when working in sneaky layers of heat. Saffron fettuccine is gorgeous as a first course. (All pastas are served in smaller and larger portions.) The long noodles are silky with just enough bite, tangled together with lobster and squid, touched with tomato sauce. In the background is the tingle of chiles, building in warmth with each mouthful, never overwhelming. It’s what turns a delicious dish into a compelling one.

Cambridge, MA - 12\11\14 - Fried cauliflower at Viale in Central Square. Lane Turner/Globe Staff Section: LIV Reporter: Devra First Slug: 17din
Lane Turner/Globe Staff
Fried cauliflower draped with white anchovies.

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And the best of the “larger bites” — the serving size formerly known as the main course — is rosy, tender duck breast with chestnut puree, honey-glazed turnips, chiles, and crunchy fried quinoa. I could sing the praises of this dish all day, with its precise balance of flavors and textures.

A small head of cauliflower pulls a similar trick, pungent, briny, sweet, and nutty. It is fried whole, draped with white anchovies, and served with brown butter flavored with capers and golden raisins. (It also costs $7, marking, one hopes, the end of oddly overpriced — $14! $24! — cauliflower dishes spotted around town.)

The kitchen handles autumn-into-winter flavors beautifully, in dishes such as crisp veal sweetbreads with apple butter, chestnuts, and lentils, and in drinks too. The likes of the Old Plank Road (bourbon with apple vanilla maple syrup, lemon, and whiskey bitters, over a mound of tiny ice cubes that demand to be crunched) and the Jackson County Line (ancho chile liqueur, apple brandy, lemon, and glogg) are fine, warming tipples for a cold night. The Owl Farm (tequila, lime, beet syrup, allspice, and salt), however, veers into weirdness, somewhere between borscht and a margarita.

A dish of duck cappellacci has so much layered flavor it’s best to close one’s eyes to enjoy it — marsala, cipollini onions, wild mushrooms, and foie gras butter. Gnocchi are the perfect density, served with deeply savory wild boar Bolognese. Much of the pasta is made in house, and it is Viale’s greatest strength.

Cambridge, MA - 12\11\14 - Pork shank at Viale in Central Square. Lane Turner/Globe Staff Section: LIV Reporter: Devra First Slug: 17din
Lane Turner/Globe Staff
Pork shank with sweet potato puree, sweet-sour red cabbage, and burnt orange.

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It can also be a weakness. Some nights it arrives undercooked, others overcooked. And the compositions are so rich they really do work best as small portions; the larger servings can feel like too much. And while meat dishes are memorable and successful — that duck, a tender pork shank protruding from sweet potato puree with sweet-sour red cabbage and burnt orange — fish doesn’t come off as well. Pan-roasted halibut with kale, farro, and pumpkin seed pesto and trout with mushroom risotto, grilled rapini, and balsamic brown butter are pleasant enough but pale beside other dishes. Desserts are simple pleasures — an affogato, apple crostada with cider caramel and vanilla ice cream, an extremely cardamom-heavy pudding with cranberries and ginger cookies.

There is a nice little beer list here, with locals like Pretty Things Meadowlark IPA and Jack’s Abby Jabby Brau on tap alongside Anderson Valley Boont Amber Ale and Founders Porter. The wine list is Old World and easy drinking, the right size for a regular to sip her way through, from a sparkling cabernet franc to a not-too-sweet Riesling from the Finger Lakes to a Barbera that’s just right with the food. The staff is uncommonly well-versed in the options, and generally helpful in all ways. Viale is one of those relaxed, informal restaurants that nonetheless makes service a priority.

At the end of the meal, the check arrives in a tiny pizza box emblazoned with Viale’s logo, one last charming touch to send diners off into the night, from one more Central Square restaurant that adds to the neighborhood’s character.

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Devra First can be reached at dfirst@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.