Editor’s note: The restaurant’s name has since been changed to Faccia a Faccia.
When it comes to capturing various zeitgeists while maintaining a coherent brand, few local restaurateurs are as adept as Jamie Bissonnette and Ken Oringer, chef-owners of JK Food Group. Spots such as Toro (tapas in the South End), Coppa (Italian small plates and pizza in the same neighborhood), and Little Donkey (craft stoner food in Cambridge’s Central Square) showcase high culinary standards without ever a whiff of being stuffy or overserious. Yes, we can truly, madly, deeply love caviar and potato chips, foie gras and cheeseburgers, uni carbonara and Italian grinders all at the same time. Our appetites contain multitudes. We know this, in part, because Bissonnette and Oringer have been telling us so on their menus and in their dining rooms for years.
Two weeks ago, they opened their first new area restaurant since Little Donkey in 2016: Faccia Brutta, which homes in on coastal Italian territory such as Liguria, Sardinia, and Sicily. (I look forward to listening to people try to pronounce “ugly face” in Italian for the next few months.) Brian Rae, perhaps best known for his time at Rialto in Harvard Square, is the executive chef. The menu throws a net around regional classics (gnocculi, short, dimpled pasta strands from Sicily), crowd-pleasers (chicken Milanese with shaved summer truffles), and JK-style bon vivant fun (potato chips with green goddess dressing and caviar). Downstairs, there is Bar Pallino, for drinking natural wine and eating snacks: cheese, breadsticks and prosciutto, foie gras torchon.
Faccia Brutta beckons with its tangerine patio umbrellas and cyan front door, opening into a room of mature neutrals: cream brick walls, pale wood floors, and a zinc-topped bar at the center, with plenty of greenery. It would be one of the most anticipated restaurant openings of the post-pandemic era in any location, but the fact that it’s on Newbury Street seals the deal. Home to stylish restaurants with glorious patios that haven’t always put food front and center, this part of Back Bay is becoming an increasingly interesting place to eat as places like Grand Tour, Krasi, and La Neta join the likes of Asta, Saltie Girl, and Select Oyster Bar. With the arrival of Faccia Brutta, an argument for the neighborhood as a renewed dining destination solidifies.
Plus, who wouldn’t want to eat mozzarella sticks with caviar? That’s how they’re served here, and the dish — if it can be called a dish, rather than an idea — is a neat distillation of Bissonnette and Oringer’s high-low aesthetic, where cuisine from the motherland coexists on the menu beside American adaptation, all driven with a chef’s license. No need to draw lines between “authenticity” and evolution.
But mozzarella sticks topped with caviar are still just mozzarella sticks. Vegetables arranged on a platter of ice become something more than the sum of their parts — stalks of asparagus, cut radishes, blanched snap peas, sliced avocado, cherry tomatoes on the vine. With little bowls of rich, mildly fishy tonnato sauce and excellent pesto for dipping, they are excellent antipasti. The cornucopia is perfect to share with a table of friends on a warm evening, a spritz or a glass of rose in hand. It’s celebratory and healthful, a rare and welcome combination in a restaurant. (The caponata and crisped bitter green puntarelle beside the iced vegetables are nice but not necessary, like something that landed on the platter from another appetizer.)
The menu at Faccia Brutta veers between the fried and the rich, and the light and the bright. It’s a satisfying balance. Order a crudo — live local scallops with truffle and endive, a beady-eyed langoustine with Thai basil oil and pickled rhubarb. Then order fried artichokes; just about every table does, according to our server. They are served simply, on a piece of paper to absorb the oil, with a lemon wedge. Hang on to your tonnato sauce, because these golden-brown morsels would take kindly to a swipe through something creamy.
There are so many good small plates available, it’s like a choose-your-own-canape cocktail party: fried stuffed olives with anchovy and sausage; razor clams with morels, spring onions, and crab butter; burrata with sweet-and-sour apricots, walnuts, and oregano vinaigrette; grilled octopus with black rice, guanciale, and fava beans. But a bit farther down on the menu, there’s pasta to save room for.
The gnocculi come in a red sauce with tuna confit and olives, their curled-in sides designed to trap flavor in every bite. Paccheri are also swathed in tomatoes, with shrimp, crab, and pine nuts; the wide tubes of pasta collapse languidly beneath the sauce, but they retain perfect bite. So do the grains in a seasonal nettle risotto with asparagus, mushrooms, and ricotta salata. The chefs in the open kitchen know how to time their starches. Other pasta fun, in various shades: green stuffed pansotti, potbellied Ligurian dumplings with chard, ricotta, walnuts, brown butter, and fiddleheads; curly-wurly trottoli black with squid ink, with uni, leeks, and Calabrian chile. There’s rigatoni cacio e pepe with peas; there’s bucatini aglio e olio with baby clams and bottarga. With any of these dishes, diners can substitute celiac-safe gluten-free pasta made in house.
Between pasta and dessert are secondi like black garlic hanger steak with fennel crema and sunchokes; grilled lobster with clams, chile butter, and fregola, the pearl-shaped pasta from Sardinia; and branzino served “Christmas-style,” a clever salute to New Mexico’s enchiladas smothered in red and green chile. One half of the fish is topped with salsa verde, the other with tomato-based pesto alla trapanese, a Sicilian cousin to the Genoese basil pesto we all know and love.
Faccia Brutta offers a deeply but not exclusively Italian wine list; there’s little overlap with the subterranean Bar Pallino, where beverage director Jodie Battles focuses on the natural, organic, and biodynamic. Cocktails include multiple riffs on the spritz and Negroni, along with originals like the Sicilian Bumble (a version of the Bee’s Knees made with chamomile grappa) and the Orangie Fizz (a citrus-y Aperol potion that contains aquafaba, chickpea liquid). And the dessert menu is full of fun ideas: the Sicilian sandwich, brioche filled with house-made cherry and pistachio gelato; bomboloni, doughnuts with rhubarb jam and strawberry sugar. The chilled fruit plate for two does for dessert what the vegetable platter does for antipasti: lightens it, brightens it, and serves it on the rocks. Featuring house-made sorbetto and local fruit, it ought to be an evolving summer treat.
Like Faccia Brutta itself. This new kid on the block has promise.
278 Newbury St., Back Bay, Boston, 857-991-1080, www.facciabruttaboston.com