This is a sister act that has lasted for nearly a quarter-century. Ristorante Molise, owned and run by siblings Antonietta DiLemme and Elise Zullo, is an institution in the center of Wakefield, an oasis of family-style Italian cuisine that draws customers from around the area.
It may appear to be just a nice, better-than-average dining venue with an authentic flair. But on a recent visit, the dishes seemed prepared with a special zest, with a pizazz not slowed in the least by its 24 years in town.
The wait staff was friendly and accommodating — even motherly — and the setting was welcoming to couples flaunting sartorial finery as well as family groupings with kids and teens.
The restaurant, set in a modest, if expanded, storefront, has a pleasant décor with walls that are a cross between coral and camel, and dotted with paintings of Italian vistas. The ceilings are low, and carpets keep background noise at bay.
There’s a long wine list, a cocktail list (that leans a bit heavily on ’tini variations), and some very sweet sangria (both red and white, $10) to accompany an extensive menu of antipasti, pasta, veal, and fish. The choices were so extensive that we decided to settle on fish dishes as a theme for the evening, with two exceptions.
Many diners might start an Italian meal with calamari fritti ($10), the squid crispy-fried in white wine sauce. We, however, opted for the carciofi fritti ($10), tender artichoke hearts dipped in egg batter, pan-fried, and finished with a wine sauce. The coating, while more limp than crisp, blended nicely with the sharp tang of the artichoke for a surprising, satisfying start.
We also enjoyed an appetizer special of portabella mushroom with spinach ($9); the heft of the mushrooms made for meaty mouthfuls. Other appetizers include mozzarella con pomodoro ($10), bruschetta rustica ($7), and antipasto alla Molise ($14), with assorted meats, cheeses, and marinated vegetables.
We ordered the fish of the day special, swordfish served over grilled asparagus ($26). The fish came out a trifle dry (the curse of swordfish in general), but was saved by a zesty tomato-based sauce.
The tagliatelle con vongole ($18) was a virtual seabed of homemade pasta in white wine sauce and garlic, filled with both whole clams and chopped clams.
Both dishes were served in dramatic fashion, artfully arranged. By contrast, the risotto San Marino ($27) appeared to be a simple if generous pile of rice and seafood that gave no hint of the delicate taste to come. One bite, and appearances were forgotten. Juicy scallops, whole shrimp, and chunks of lobster, submerged in the tomato and cream sauce and Arborio rice, popped up like hidden treasures in each mouthful.
Other seafood options include gamberi alla rustico ($22), sautéed shrimp over tagliatelle with a choice of sauce; frutti di mare ($24), offering shrimp, scallops, calamari, clams, and mussels with pasta; and the ever-popular cioppino, or fish stew ($24 for one, $32 for two).
There are also a variety of chicken dishes, ranging from $19 to $20; pasta dishes for $18 to $22; and veal offerings, $20 to $26.
Of course, you must save room for dessert. The dessert tray is a feast for the eyes; on our visit the choices included cannoli, bread pudding, chocolate mousse, and crème brulee, for $6 or $7. The mousse ($6) was a frothy cloud of chocolate, but the crème brulee ($6) was something special — the top was fiercely torched, creating an intense burnt caramel flavor that elevated this dish to sublime.
Ten years ago, the sisters opened a second Ristorante Molise at One Market Square in Amesbury Center, an indication that no curtain call is in sight.
In honor of Mother’s Day, both locations will open at noon on Sunday, but the owners, expecting a crowd, recommend calling ahead for a reservation.