Nobody has done more to introduce the notion of fun into Boston’s restaurant scene than chefs Jamie Bissonnette and Ken Oringer. I don’t mean nightlife glitz or decor kitsch or entertainment on the side, but a pure sense of humor, playfulness, and style alongside excellence that is recognizably theirs. Their collection of restaurants — Coppa, Little Donkey, Toro — is called JK Food Group. JK! LOL.
When they opened their latest, Faccia a Faccia, it was called Faccia Brutta (“ugly face” in Italian). It was a very JK name, slangy and irreverent, that had to be changed a few months later because of “concerns raised” by a brand of a similar name. Faccia Bummer. If the new name sounds more like Italian slang for “in-person meeting,” little else has changed.
The restaurant is on center-stage Newbury Street, a departure from locations like the South End and Central Square, with their strong neighborhood flavors; reservations are a must, and can be hard to come by. Faccia a Faccia has a striking brownstone entryway with an outdoor patio, turquoise door framed by a logo-bearing archway. Comparatively, the interior is … nice. Classy. Neutral paint on brick, staunch columns, light wood floors, an open kitchen. At the center is a square bar. When I eat in the dining room, it feels like I’m at Faccia a Faccia, a more traditional, less distinctive Italian restaurant. But that bar? It’s haunted. Here lives the spirit of Faccia Brutta, lively and personal and fun, with a penchant for loud music. (There’s also a downstairs wine bar, Bar Pallino, which feels both cool and under-discovered the times I visit.)
Executive chef Brian Rae (Coppa, Rialto) likewise creates a spacious menu with a distinctive heart. Everyone who comes here will find something to order. There are crowd-pleasing snacks, like tomato-topped “grandma bread” taking a long, luxurious bath in olive oil; giant heaps of fried artichokes; and potato chips with green goddess dip and caviar. There are seven pasta dishes, each available with house-made gluten-free pasta that diners can also purchase by the bag; much of the rest of the menu is gluten-free, too. (Oringer’s 13-year-old daughter, Verveine, was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2020, and the two have a cookbook for kids coming out in March.) There are two steak dishes and a nice take on chicken Milanese topped with shaved artichokes and Burgundy truffles. And until I figure out the secret that is not at all a secret, I have a few puzzlingly rocky meals here.
At heart, Faccia a Faccia is a “coastal Italian” restaurant, as announced in its opening press release. Not at all a secret. But it’s easy to forget, distracted by things like mozzarella sticks topped with caviar. The mozzarella sticks topped with caviar are not good. They taste like any frozen mozzarella sticks from a box — topped with caviar. I’ve suckered for them twice and I won’t do it again (especially since discovering the excellent fried olives stuffed with pork sausage and anchovy). If I had celiac disease, I would be here weekly for a bowl of pasta and a glass of wine at the bar. As it is, I might order the mafalde for its perfectly cooked, crinkle-edged noodles, sauced with wild boar and chanterelles (and quite spicy without warning). But the pasta doesn’t sing here the way it does at, say, Coppa. Better to focus on crudo, small plates, and fish. Let the singing begin.
Crudo dishes come in lovely, clean flavor combinations, like Nantucket bay scallops with black truffle, Meyer lemon, and endive, or ruby red prawns with pickled rhubarb and Thai basil oil. Each dish is a simple showcase, and there’s nowhere for flaws to hide. So it’s glaring when the otherwise wonderful hamachi with fig leaf oil, plums, and umeboshi is oversalted. It’s a recurrent theme at Faccia a Faccia: too much salt here, too little salt there.
Small plates are elegant, seasonal, and special. (I’m not talking to you, mozzarella sticks.) Two not to miss: the gorgeous, creamy burrata, right now served with sweet and sour Chioggia beets, walnuts, raisins, and oregano vinaigrette. And the tender grilled octopus with black rice, guanciale, baby turnips, and charred leek vinaigrette. Both dishes support a star ingredient with balanced, pleasing, well-considered flavors and textures.
I’m not sure there’s a better-tasting lobster dish in town right now than Faccia a Faccia’s split, grilled version in lobster broth with clams, fregola (the pearl-shaped pasta sometimes called Sardinian couscous), and chile butter. It’s smoky, warming, cooked just right. Irresistible, it demands to be ordered. But I worry the swordfish will be overlooked, so deserving with its spice crust, accompaniments of mild cabbage and tender beans, and accent flavors of citrus and green olives.
Sweets include the tempting Sicilian sandwich (brioche stuffed with gelato) or baked Sorrentina, sweet cream gelato with yuzu cream and a dramatic toupee of torched meringue. But the best choice is the chilled fruit plate, even in December in New England. It brings all the luxury and swagger of a seafood tower to dessert: An ice-filled metal tray on a stand is spread with ripe lobes of persimmon, passionfruit ready to be slurped from its shell like an oyster, grapes, mango dusted with chile powder, half a bruleed grapefruit, and more. There’s also a scoop of sorbetto. It’s such a luxury to be served this spread of ice-cold fruit, ready to eat, to be shared among companions.
Cocktails at Faccia a Faccia are fun and fine, with a raft of Negroni riffs. The ones I try veer sweet, and I find myself gravitating toward glasses of Furlano from Trentino, Pigato from Liguria, Barbera from Piedmont. The people who make the cocktails, however, are great: the heart of the bar that is the heart of the restaurant. Sit in the right place, order the right things, and Faccia a Faccia can be just right. It takes some trial and error to find that sweet spot.
FACCIA A FACCIA
278 Newbury St., Back Bay, 857-991-1080, www.facciaafacciaboston.com
Wheelchair accessible (elevator from alleyway); patio seating in season.
Prices Snacks $5-$22, crudo $21-$25, small plates $12-$24, larger plates $27-$78, desserts $9-$30.
Hours Mon-Fri 5-10 p.m., Sat noon-3 p.m., 5-10 p.m., Sun noon-8 p.m.
Noise level Midrange in the dining room, loud at the bar.
★★★★★ Extraordinary | ★★★★ Excellent | ★★★ Very good | ★★ Good | ★ Fair | (No stars) Poor