Seeing and being seen is a very different thing from place to place. In L.A., we expect to spot movie stars and music moguls in the city’s restaurants. In D.C., it’s politicians: Was that or wasn’t that Ted Cruz wolfing wagyu at an area steakhouse? In Boston, we get all worked up over the Ben Afflecks, the Steven Tylers, anyone with the last name Wahlberg — folks with the local connect. Many of our most notable celebrity sightings occur at the famous Boston hot dog restaurant Fenway Park.
Not to knock the knackwurst, but there’s not always a correlation between notable diners and culinary excellence. But across the river in Cambridge, where being smart can make you famous, things are a little different. Which is to say: Oh my goddess is that Elizabeth Warren eating dinner at Giulia? (Whatever, we all get excited over different things. I won’t mock your boy-band fandom if you let me kvell when I spot the favorite law professor I never had because I forgot to go to law school.)
By Cambridge measures, the hottest celebrity restaurant right now is Moëca, which opened at the beginning of August. It’s the place you’ll see restaurateurs, magazine editors, wine professionals, and academics seated at adjacent tables, eating oysters with rhubarb and lime granita, barbecued beets with huckleberry, salt cod-stuffed ravioli, and grilled striped bass. Moëca’s out-of-the-gate attraction is that it’s run by the team behind Giulia, the nearby Italian restaurant with a cult following that makes reservations hard to land. The restaurants are just a few storefronts apart on Mass. Ave., in the stretch between Harvard and Porter squares, with Moëca’s entrance around the corner on Shepard Street. (The space was previously Luce, Shepard, and Chez Henri.)
Chef Michael Pagliarini and wife Pam Ralston opened Giulia 10 years ago; he had previously been executive chef at early-century hot spot Via Matta. They followed that with Benedetto, now closed, in the Charles Hotel. Despite all their experience with Italian cuisine — or perhaps because of it — Moëca is not an Italian restaurant. It was time to branch out. Rather than focus on region, the menu homes in on ingredients.
“I’ve known for at least six or seven years that I wanted to do a seafood restaurant,” Pagliarini said in a conversation earlier this year. But the timing was never quite right. Not that it was this time around: They were in the middle of a deeply difficult period with the closing of Benedetto. The space that would become Moëca was simply too good to pass up.
Pagliarini and Ralston talked things through with the core team, along for the ride from Giulia and Benedetto: chef de cuisine Brian Gianpoalo (at Giulia since its first day, he also worked with Pagliarini at Via Matta), pastry chef Renae Connolly, and general manager Lauren Faria. “Our creative wanderings and ability to cook great seafood from all over the world needed to be realized,” Pagliarini said. Sticking to Italy was too limited. “These dishes needed a home, and we needed to broaden our culinary horizons. We wanted to branch out and be inspired by New England and local fisheries.”
This is where the restaurant’s curious name comes in. It is Venetian dialect for a tiny soft-shell crab in season there twice a year: a delicacy. In New England, however, European green crabs are a menace — an invasive species with a population increasing with the ocean’s temperature. For the past few years, scientists, chefs, and fishermen have been working to develop a culinary market for the crabs, which also have delicious roe. If you can’t beat them, eat them.
“We named Moëca for these resilient, adaptive crabs ready for any challenge,” Pagliarini said. Preparing them isn’t easy, but that is part of the fun.
He encountered the species a few years ago at a “Future of Fishing” event hosted by environmental nonprofit Manomet, then hosted a green crab dinner at Benedetto with the Green Crab Project and Venetian fisherman Paolo Tagliapietra. “How do we educate, be part of the solution, be good citizens of the food system? It’s so important to me. I’ve been doing this too long to not care about it, for the sake of this generation of cooks and all of us,” Pagliarini said. So that is part of Moëca’s mission — to help build a better food system, creating strong, collaborative relationships with fishermen and farmers.
The other part is simply to be a great restaurant for the neighborhood: “It needs a place where people can go have some oysters, whole grilled fish, wonderful vegetable side dishes, and exceptional ice creams and desserts from Renae and her team.”
And that is what Moëca serves up.
One begins to relax even before entering; the exterior, painted a cool navy, does something calming to the eyes. A space of blues and grays with handsome woodwork and marble-topped tables, the interior offers a peek into the kitchen through a copper-hooded window at the back. In a minute, someone comes by to offer a drink: The herbal Tisane Spritz, made with a bubbles and bergamot-tinged liqueur? The Alghero Analog, in which Sardinian gin meets sherry and beets? For a bit of summery spice, and to remind myself we’re not in Italy anymore, this visit it’s the Tropea, a potion of mezcal with watermelon, grapefruit, salted agave, and a Tajín rim.
The menu eases us in with raw bar: those oysters topped with party-pink granita, tautog with smoked bone broth and shiso. To accompany my Mexican-ish drink, we order striped bass and stone fruit aguachile with red onion and basil, the kind of light but flavorful dish I want to eat all season long. I can’t resist the squid ink crisps on the side. They fall somewhere between chicharron and Asian crab chips (which I also can’t resist): incredibly crunchy but also airy, a stunning dark gray.
A fragrant square of sesame focaccia with a crackling golden top arrives beside a bowl of labneh topped with chile crisp and cucumber. (The cooling Middle Eastern strained yogurt and fiery Chinese condiment are BFFs; I will be trying this at home.) Squash blossoms are stuffed with smoked fish then fried, a crisp Italian-Jewish tempura over rich, golden saffron aioli we don’t want to miss a swipe of.
Those namesake green crabs turn up in a loose, almost latte-like foamy custard with shiitake mushrooms, corn, and coconut. “Stir everything together,” advises the staffer we’ve been chatting with since our arrival. “Get a bit of everything in one bite.” This isn’t the standout dish of the night, a bit quieter than other offerings, but I do feel I’m doing my part to eradicate the pesky buggers. (I like to think of the green crabs at home in Venice, trading travel tips: “Just don’t go to New England. It’s so dangerous there!”)
Maine lobster spaghetti comes cloaked in silky roe butter, warmed with fermented chile, and enlivened by a green hedgerow of julienned shiso on top. I love this herb, with its unique, bright taste, and I’m happy to see it played up. Sorrel, another herb I love and don’t see enough, is the star of a nightly special: turbot, in a delicate green pool of sauce featuring its lemony flavor, with chanterelles.
There is wine, and solid advice, which leads us to a $60 bottle of pinot bianco that fits the bill admirably.
Now for dessert! Connolly is one of the most talented pastry chefs around, and ice cream is a particular strong suit. Moëca serves up gorgeous little compositions featuring her gelati: Smoked vanilla mascarpone with spicy caramel popcorn is a pure delight. So is an ice cream sandwich featuring strawberry gelato in a warm vanilla bun with cookie butter and Thai basil meringue (although I’d like it with double the strawberry gelato, for which I’m a pure sucker).
With the benefit of experience, proximity, shared resources, and a strong team, it isn’t a surprise that Giulia’s sequel is off to a strong start.
Also no surprise: Reservations at Moëca are already becoming hard to land.
1 Shepard St., Cambridge, 617-945-0040, www.moecarestaurant.com. Wed-Sat 5:30-9 p.m. Raw bar and small plates $10-$28. Large plates $32-$84. Desserts $9-$15.
Devra First can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.