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DINING OUT | DEVRA FIRST

A red-sauce shrine to the matron saints

Chef Tiffani Faison’s Orfano upends Italian-American tropes with wit and elegance. The food mostly keeps up.

Black pepper maltagliati at Orfano.Blake Nissen/The Boston Globe

In the swank, handsome room that is Orfano, notions get turned on their heads. Chef-owner Tiffani Faison’s Fenway Italian restaurant feels like a gentleman’s club, with its dark woods and chevron parquet floors and plush plum banquettes. But when the martini cart rolls around, steered by a bartender who recounts the drink’s history as he stirs toward icy perfection, above his head hang framed oval portraits of Lady Gaga eating spaghetti and Anna Pellegrino Rao of New York red-sauce haunt Rao’s. Orfano is a restaurant with matron saints. It is “The Godmother,” the doors inscribed with “Leave the gun, take the cannoli” in gold curlicue script. “bell hooks only,” reads the sign outside one restroom. “Florence Welch only,” reads another. We’re not worthy! (The writer Roxane Gay was, however, when she visited in September and found a loo waiting just for her.)

On the menu, crusty Italian-American tropes are celebrated, then blown up, gently, lovingly: Beneath a blizzard of cheese and crisp lettuce, the Caesar salad has a mounded green heart of millennial avocado. The fresh pepper grated tableside comes from a mill the size of a T. rex femur, pure sight gag. The ricotta cheesecake is a fairy ring, a gossamer layer of creaminess set on fennel-seed shortbread, crowned with delicate segments of citrus and fennel fronds. Nostalgia is so present here it’s practically an extra guest at the table — in the garlic bread, wrapped in red-and-white tissue; in the duck Marbella for two, an intimate remake of an ’80s dinner party; in the dish of grandma candies by the door, filled with sweet, sticky goo and wrapped in strawberry-printed foil.

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Lobster bucatini at Orfano.Blake Nissen/The Boston Globe

This is such a good restaurant. There's so much style and humor and carefully calibrated winking. The sensibility lands; the staff delivers. This isn't a perfect restaurant. The experience can be uneven. The sense of regret when a veal chop arrives dramatically undercooked is as raw as the meat at the center. So much at Orfano is on point, it doubles the disappointments.

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What’s best about the place is the people who animate it: the welcoming hosts, the good-humored servers; that stirring performance at the martini cart from drinks honcho Brian Callahan, the wise counsel of wine director Charlie Gaeta. I am recognized each time I visit Orfano, but showing up unannounced makes a difference of degrees. Maybe no one offers to take our coats, or we drink out of wineglasses as sturdy as Clydesdales rather than the graceful, leggy stems that otherwise materialize. It’s a study in how far a little extra attention goes in smoothing any edges. And it shows how much human connection flavors the dining experience, literally as well as figuratively. Orfano’s meatballs — landing in a sweet spot on the light-hefty continuum, served in a lusty, spicy Sunday gravy — are based on a family recipe from Dan Raia, culinary director of Faison’s Big Heart Hospitality, also behind Fool’s Errand, Sweet Cheeks, and Tiger Mama in the Fenway: Orfano cements the restaurant group’s dominance in the neighborhood. The limoncello is a slightly adapted version of one made by Gaeta’s grandfather, whose picture hangs on the wall. This one is personal.

Michele Carter, previously with Barbara Lynch’s restaurant group, is creative culinary director at Orfano. Each meal here begins with excellent breadsticks, tall and spindly, ideal with cocktails. A “martini alla cart” (love a good drink pun) is a real indulgence, a cocktail that comes with a show, some of the best olives I’ve ever had, and a stiff $24 price tag. If that’s not your thing, the rest of the list has much to offer, from an easy-drinking Pimm’s-based potion to the rich, well-rounded Godfather (wherein Scotch is infused with the flavor of smoked brisket, then combined with Amaretto and sherry). Servers recommend the Parmesan mousse — imagine a bowl filled with cheesy whipped cream and you start to get the idea — as a dip for the garlic bread, which, well, if you’re going to overload, you might as well overload. A round of warm, hand-pulled mozzarella is snipped into quarters tableside with fancy shears; sometimes the fresh cheese is a delight, but others it comes out rubbery and tough.

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Garlic bread with a parmesan mousse at Orfano.Blake Nissen/The Boston Globe

Antipasti divide along two poles, red sauce and raw. Salt and pepper calamari hints at kinship to that Chinatown favorite, but the accompanying “dim sum dippy sauce” doesn’t evoke dim sum at all. The calamari, however, is tender and nicely fried, with onion petals and crisp battered fennel, the latter a particularly good addition. The dish is more interesting than the slightly chewy but serviceable clams Orfano, chopped and served in their shells with breadcrumbs, pancetta, garlic, and herbs. Scallop crudo arrives in thin, overlapping slices laid on the shell, topped with citrus in several forms. The pop of caviar-like finger lime is a nice contrast, but the scallops themselves are fairly flavorless, not at all sweet. There are salads, too, most notably that Caesar of Little Gem lettuce, crushed croutons, and avocado au poivre. (Taste it before you accept an extra crack from that giant mill. It’s plenty peppery!)

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It all leads up to pasta, theoretically the meal’s midcourse but really Orfano’s high point and higher purpose. This is what the kitchen wants to be doing; this is what the kitchen does best. (I loved Faison’s pasta at Rocca a decade ago, too.) There are little hand-rolled gnocchi, confetti’d with bits of broccoli and finished with a drift of feathery grated Parmesan, or served with generous chunks of lobster in broth. There is cacio e pepe, a bit of a bait and switch and a bow to the popularity of this dish right now. Rather than strands of pasta coated in cheese and pepper, we get taleggio-filled tortelloni (slightly undercooked), each bearing a dollop of salsa verde. Fusilli alla vodka is an astonishingly good version, with Calabrian chile warming the creamy tomato sauce; rigatoni with meat ragu is the carnivore’s analog, mellow instead of spicy and almost as good. Lobster bucatini again strikes a spicy note, tempered by brown-butter lobster sauce, briny and nutty and rich, plus plentiful lobster. Black pepper maltagliati layers bite-size pieces of flat pasta with thin crescents of delicata squash, hen of the woods mushrooms, and edible blossoms over silky squash puree, a heady sherry butter knitting the flavors together. These last two might be the best dishes on the menu.

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Tiffani Faison at Orfano.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

We then segue into chops, not the best dishes on the menu. The flavor of a prime rib eye dry-aged for 35 days is drowned out by too much anchovy-caper butter and too much salt. It is cooked properly, though, unlike the veal chop. That we try to slice into and can’t, because we are essentially sawing at seared raw meat; on a repeat performance, we ask for the veal to be cooked medium, and although it is better, it is still wildly undercooked. Sides such as mushrooms Marsala and Sicilian cauliflower are enjoyable, but I think of all the steakhouses in town that perfectly cook expensive cuts of meat every time and wonder if Orfano need bother. One great steak would be enough, and leave diners to focus on the much-better secondi: There’s a lovely monkfish piccata, made with grilled lemon and miso. Chicken scarpariello is unusually elegant, the bird roasted, the sausage incorporated into vinaigrette, the pickled peppers carefully arranged on top. Parm here is built around tonkatsu, the crisp, breaded Japanese pork cutlet. It rises from a pool of red sauce and cheese, topped with greens: an edible Italian flag. (The so-called “pizza lasagna,” made with whipped pepperoni, Sunday gravy, and burnt cheese, is filed with the secondi rather than the pasta; it is hefty.)

Ricotta cheesecake pie at Orfano.Blake Nissen/The Boston Globe

Meals at Orfano are bookended with grace: They begin with a talk about wine with Gaeta, whose list — mainly Italian selections, plus some from California — is a real asset to Orfano. It’s a good one to peruse, but the surest path to something you’ll like is to ask; a suggested $56 bottle of Sonoma Mountain barbera manages to satisfy three people with very different tastes.

And they end with pastry chef Dee Steffen Chinn’s desserts, another real asset. She breaks tiramisu down into parts, stripes of mocha mousse, coffee cream, white chocolate ganache, and whipped mascarpone side by side in a little tray, coffee pizzelle folded into a napkin alongside. Scoop up the different components with the brittle cookie, and don’t expect too much of a sugar rush; this dessert walks a fine line between salty and sweet. Cannoli spiked with limoncello are served North End-style, in a cardboard box. The ricotta pie cheesecake is wonderful, unless it’s been sitting too long and the shortbread becomes soggy; the contrast between the crisp bottom and creamy top is key. A dessert titled “Royal Chocolate Cake for Two, Kween” is a showstopper: a whole miniature chocolate-olive oil layer cake, with truffle filling and ganache, on its own wee cake stand. It’s good in a way restaurant cake rarely is. A winter sundae manages to rival it in eye appeal, a goblet filled with richly hued scoops of sorbet and gelato — black currant, prosecco, and chocolate — a plume of Oreo panna cotta piped up the side. It’s scattered in crisp chocolate crumbs and served with chocolate biscotti. These are some of the most enjoyable sweets I’ve had in a restaurant in recent memory.

The main dining area at Orfano in Boston. Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

If you don’t order dessert, you still get Orfano’s take on the Italian rainbow cookie. Moist layers of red, white, and green edged in chocolate, they come on floral china with the check. They photograph beautifully, tweak tradition, and taste good: a fitting end to a meal here.

On your way out, you may find yourself facing a mirror that reflects a neon message written backward on the opposite wall. Readable in reverse, it says: “You are [expletive] perfect.” And though we are all flawed — because we are all flawed — it rings true.


ORFANO

★★★

1391 Boylston St., Fenway, Boston, 617-916-9600, www.orfanoboston.com

All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.

Prices Appetizers $6-$17. Pasta $18-$31. Steaks and chops $37-$59. Sides $9. Secondi $26-$29 (duck Marbella for two $51). Desserts $5-$16.

Hours Sun-Thu 5-10 p.m., Fri-Sat 5-11 p.m.

Noise level Conversation easy; a little louder toward the back.

What to order Salt and pepper calamari, meatballs alla Raia, Orfano Caesar, any pasta (especially the lobster bucatini and black pepper maltagliati), monkfish piccata, winter sundae, ricotta pie cheesecake, Royal Chocolate Cake for Two, Kween.




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