We were looking forward to our return to Sabatino’s North. Our first visit a few years ago was special. The caprese salad was garden fresh, the veal marsala and chicken parmagiana well prepared and artfully presented, and the service was crisp and attentive in the charming storefront with abstract art on the wall.
The original Sabatino’s was in the North End of Boston and later in Malden. That restaurant, which was in business for more than 40 years, was owned by Bill Sabatino. Bill’s son, Joey, and his longtime friend Lori Sutera worked at that restaurant before opening one in Derry six years ago.
Since our last trip, Sabatino’s North had moved from its location on Broadway to the repurposed train station that used to be the Depot Square Steak House. The new place has more tables, a large bar, and high ceilings that give the place an airy ambience, unlike most dimly lighted Italian eateries. The service is just as attentive. Our server offered helpful suggestions as we negotiated our way through a menu that is predictably oriented toward pasta dishes.
We started with the Sabatino’s platter ($16), which might be best described as a grilled antipasto. The four at our table dug into the heaping plate of dry cured sopressata, provolone, sautéed escarole, sautéed mushrooms, and roasted peppers. It was great dish to share, and truth be told, we probably ate more than we should have with a meal ahead of us.
Some of us loved the marinated mushrooms. Others at the table were partial to the cheese, which has a bite to it; others the roasted peppers. The salami was marbled with fat and sliced as thin as a computer printout.
One tablemate enjoyed the chicken mozzarella farfalle ($19), chunks of chicken sautéed with fresh mozzarella and in a sauce of butter, tomato, cheese, and white wine. The bowtie pasta was cooked just right, and the sauce — while a tad heavy-handed on the garlic — was flavorful.
We couldn’t resist the ciappino. The steaming piquant stew arrived at the table topped with a heap of shrimp, calamari, clams, and mussels atop a pile of linguini. The sauce was spicy but not overdone, the shrimp cooked perfectly crisp and tasty. Four large mussels dropped from their shells. The calamari was soft and not rubbery. We loved it.
The linguini with clam sauce ($16) seemed dry at first, but it grew on us by the time we got to the bed of linguini. It was good, not great.
The restaurant also offers fusilli, gnocchi, ravioli, fettuccini, and tortellini. The menu describes these items as homemade, but when asked, our servers admitted that while handmade, they were not house-made and were purchased off the premises.
Diners can choose their pasta, and sauce including Alfredo, pesto, marinara, Bolognese, or garlic and oil. One in our party ordered cheese tortellini with marinara sauce ($15), and this is where our visit to the former train station went off the rails.
The pasta was mushy and the sauce was thick and somewhat flavorless, giving the whole dish an aura of Chef Boyardee. Our server was apologetic and brought a side of Bolognese sauce to see if that helped, but dipping the tortellini in a new sauce with the old one on it did nothing to improve the dish. By this time, the other guests were more than halfway through the meal, so the tortellini was sent back.
Imagine our surprise then, when our check arrived with the tortellini on the bill. We protested, and the server said that it wasn’t taken off because we said we didn’t like the way it tasted — precisely why an uneaten dish would be taken off a check. She then huddled with her superior, who agreed to take it off, but the experience left a bad taste in our mouths and will probably stop at least the tortellini diner from returning.
Tom Long can be reached at email@example.com.