My husband has a theory: You can tell how good a restaurant is by its bread. If a restaurant can’t bother serving fresh bread or rolls — the first edible impression — how can you expect it to wow you with the rest of the meal?
From the first bite, we knew we were in for a treat at Lucia’s Ristorante & Bar in Winchester. The thin-sliced bread, made especially for Lucia’s by Piantedosi Baking Co., has a crunchy crust, with the interior so soft, chewy, and moist, we didn’t need butter.
But even before the bread, something else stopped us in our tracks.
Sistine Chapel-like ceiling frescoes instantly transported us from a sunny late afternoon in the beautiful ’burb of Winchester — just steps from the commuter rail — to Sulmona, a city in central Italy.
“Some people love it; others make fun of it. Most people understand,” said owner Donato Frattaroli, who emigrated from Sulmona when he was 14. “It’s the only thing left from what it was — the ceilings.”
Frattaroli was referring to the makeover that both the restaurant and menu have undergone since he took over the restaurant five years ago from his brother, Filippo, and Filippo’s wife, who opened the Winchester restaurant in 1986.
The original Lucia’s, opened in 1977 by Donato Frattaroli and his brothers, is a mainstay in Boston’s North End. In the same neighborhood, he and his family also have opened Filippo Ristorante and Artú Rosticceria & Trattoria. So while many restaurants outside of Boston brag of “North End dining,’’ Lucia Winchester is the real thing.
But after 25 years, it was time for a whole new look, Frattaroli said. Now, customers looking for casual dining can sit at the sleek new bar and enjoy drinks, appetizers, or artisanal pizzas like prosciutto and fig, potato and rosemary, or scampi ($11 to $13) while watching sports on television. The dining room is more elegant, though still informal.
The night we visited, few spaces were open at the bar or dining room. The reason has a lot
to do with executive chef Pino Maffeo.
Since arriving in 2009, Maffeo, an East Boston native, has injected a modern look to the menu, while staying loyal to Italian classics — and customer favorites — such as saltimbocca and lasagna.
Maffeo is known to foodies for his culinary magic at the former Sage and Boston Public, San Francisco’s Inn at the Opera, and Patricia’s Yeo’s New York restaurants, Az and Pazo. While at Restarant L at Louis Boston, Maffeo was named Food & Wine Magazine’s “Best New Chef” of 2006.
In Winchester, however, Maffeo shines the delectable light away from himself and toward the customer’s taste buds.
On our visit, we began with a bottle of 2009 Project Paso Cabernet ($35) after a long study of the world-class wine list, where prices range from $30 to well over $100 for mostly Italian and California wines. A bottle of Armand de Brignac Brut Champagne costs $400.
My husband and I shared the carrozza ($11), a variation of the well-known dish known as mozzarella in carrozza and one of the restaurant’s most popular appetizers, Frattarolli said. The lightly breaded, prosciutto-stuffed mozzarella is pan-fried and served with pomodoro sauce.
We saw stars, the flavors were so subtly stunning. Our friends, another couple, shared another Maffeo creation, roasted baby beets ($8) over a bed of arugula, with a red wine vinaigrette and shaved ricotta salata. Again, stunning in its simplicity and flavor combinations.
For entrées, two of us ordered saltimbocca ($24), veal layered with prosciutto, mozzarella, and mushrooms, sauteed in a white wine sauce and served with a side salad or pasta. There were no leftovers.
Ammazzafame ($19) was my husband’s choice, penne tossed with porcini, sausage, broccoli, sun-dried tomatoes, and capers. (Gluten-free penne is available but requires longer cooking.) My husband devoured it like he had never eaten pasta with sausage before.
That was the same reaction from our friend who tried the saggittario ($20), tender chicken breast with asparagus, olives, artichokes, anchovies, roasted tomatoes, and salad.
For dessert, we chose Torta Nocciola ($7), a hazelnut cake with a creamy glaze in which you could swirl each forkful, adding another lingering layer of flavor. Limoncello cake ($7) was a light, creamy, and perfect ending to the meal.
Next to us was a young family of four, enjoying what I later learned was the fixed-price, traditional family dinner special, offered Sunday and Monday nights (adults, $20 each; children under 12, $15).
The three-course meal includes soup or salad, pasta with marinara sauce, and a choice of two sides (sausage, meatballs, beef braciolettine, or ribs).
Everything on the dinner menu is also available for takeout at a 15 percent discount, Frattaroli said. Grab a loaf or two of Lucia Bread, which is sold at the new Piantedosi Bread Shoppe in Winchester and recreate Lucia’s at home.
Or learn from the masters, Frattaroli and Chef Maffeo, at their themed-cooking classes ($50 per person, plus materials). The lessons include a meal afterward, and June 5 is the next class; call ahead to reserve.