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The Boston Globe

North

Dining Out

In a Saugus mini-mall, mining a hidden gem

Cioppino with mussels, shrimp, and clams.

Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

Cioppino with mussels, shrimp, and clams.

Sometimes, it feels like you’ve won the lottery when you discover a cucina that’s hidden away, yet in plain view of all. One that everyone knows and tells their friends about, yet at the same time, hesitates to tell many more, wanting to keep it a secret for themselves.

That’s how I feel about Victor’s Italian Cuisine on Route 1 south, a restaurant with authentic Italian dishes. Though it has been open since April 2012, I’ve driven by countless times, unaware of the North End-like treasure nestled in a tiny mall next to the iconic orange dinosaur.

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Despite its inconspicuous location, the first time we visited, we found a line of customers weaving in front of the Sprint store and spilling into the parking lot. “Is Sprint having a sale on phones on a Friday night?” my husband asked.

Despite no advertising, lines form outside Victor’s, especially on Thursdays through Saturday nights when chef-owner Victor Grillo is cooking.

Two things struck me: 1) How patient everyone was. 2) What people were holding — cute wine holders or, for those in a rush, a bottle of wine wrapped in a brown paper bag.

That meant only one thing: It’s a BYOB.

I love BYOB restaurants, no matter the type of cuisine. It’s a rare find these days in Massachusetts; restaurants make significant profits from the markup on liquor sales. But Grillo said he prefers BYOB because it eliminates his staff’s handling of alcohol and his customers can save money by bringing their own, and so they tend to return more often.

As is typical BYOB practice, an “uncorking fee” of $5 is added for either wine or a six-pack of beer.

It was a 45-minute wait, we were told. Reservations are taken only at the door, so we put our names down, then drove off to get a bottle of red wine that I put in my own woven straw wine holder.

Upon returning, the line was even longer. The hostess led us to the eight-seat bar overlooking the open kitchen, which is more like a culinary cirque de cucina, starring Victor Grillo himself. The chef — who said later by phone that his seven sisters and Italian mother helped him refine his cooking — not only cooks, he entertains.

On this cramped stage, Grillo danced about, with low flames fanning out from the multiple burners that cook the meals in this 42-seat restaurant. On an average Thursday through Saturday night, Grillo said, he cooks 200 to 250 dinners, each made to order.

At one point, he suddenly spun around to face the bar.

“Here, try this,” he said, placing a small dish down in front of us, before returning to his dance. He’d given us some meatballs, which are part of a $9 spaghetti and meatball dish.

“I must give out about $10,000 worth of meatballs a year,” he said later by phone. He gave the couple next to us a sample as well.

Grillo also gave us a sample of lobster ravioli ($15), big pasta pillows filled with lobster and covered in a creamy pink sauce with chunks of more lobster.

We’re almost full and we haven’t even gotten our meals yet.

The experience — and meal — were so delightful, we returned a few weeks later for a visit with our two girls.

For starters, we shared the shrimp Grand Marnier ($9), a row of succulent shrimp sauteed in olive oil infused with the orangey Grand Marnier liqueur, and a caprese salad ($6), with the mozzarella and tomato portions large enough that our waitress suggested we needed just one for the four of us. We barely finished it.

When our entrees arrived, we could already foresee take-home containers in our future.

My husband opted for the chicken matteo ($12), a chef’s special that night, chopped pieces of chicken breast, tossed with sun-dried tomatoes and artichoke hearts in a garlic cheese sauce, on a choice of pasta.

Our younger daughter went for the classic chicken parmigiana pasta ($12), with breaded chicken breast in a homemade marinara sauce and mozzarella, with a choice of pasta. The thin, breaded chicken breast was so moist my daughter asked what it was. Obviously, it’s not what she’s used to at home.

My veal marsala pasta dish ($14) was a thin veal cutlet layered with mushrooms and bits of ham in a marsala sauce, over a choice of pasta.

Our teen daughter enjoyed, but could only finish half of, the veal saltimbocca pasta ($14), another scaloppine dish, this one with prosciutto, mushrooms, and mozzarella in a marsala sauce. Portions are generous, though not overflowing with pasta as a filler.

We could barely squeeze in dessert, so we shared a slice of tiramisu ($4). The list of desserts is deliberately short, a practice that Grillo observed while cooking in the North End, where customers would get their dessert at Mike’s Pastry or Modern Bakery.

No coffee (or tea) is on the menu, a condition of the landlord, who owns a Dunkin’ Donuts next door.

The tab came to $80 for four (not including tip or the bottle of wine). Considering a full meal, with leftovers for lunch the next day, the BYOB factor, the easy-access location, and low-calorie entertainment from the chef, we plan to try more from the menu, and add Victor’s to our take-out list.

Kathy Shiels Tully can be reached at kathyshiels-
tully@gmail.com.
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