Greatest hits of Italian classics served in South End trattoria
I could hardly believe my ears. It was a Saturday night, sure, but not even 7:30, and the restaurant wasn’t full. Still, I was straining to hear anybody who wasn’t sitting right next to me at our table of seven. And I wasn’t the only one. The poor server, trying to take an order from across the table, bent down to hear and banged her head on the industrial-style lighting.
The night at Cinquecento, the new Harrison Avenue “Roman trattoria” from the Aquitaine Group that’s named after its street number, 500, as well as the beloved little Fiat 500, wasn’t beginning well for anyone. Though five of us were there exactly on time, the host declined to seat us until everyone arrived. Yes, quite a few restaurants around town do this. (At least they didn’t make me leave a credit card number when I book a large table, as some places do; you know who you are.) What could a restaurant possibly lose by letting diners sit at the table they’ve reserved?
There were seats at the bar, where service is attentive, though the on-trend cocktails are trying a little too hard. This place’s obligatory raw-egg drink, called Allegro, is simple and pleasing, made with vodka and blood orange puree, which, shaken with egg white, foams up to a reddish purple. The Armonia is a less successful marriage. A mix of bourbon and chili-infused Campari, it has smoke, bitterness, and heat — too many things in one glass that don’t play together nicely. The spicy Campari is a great idea, and would really refresh in the summer on the patio with soda water or even a splash of orange juice and ice instead of the whiskey. Wine choices are extensive, with everything in bottles available by the glass, quartino (a glass-plus), carafe (half-bottle), and bottle, plus four wines on tap, all sold in those sizes, too.
Summer at Cinquecento will indeed be nice, but for now, early spring’s artichokes are a delightful starter, plump chunks of heart braised in olive oil, then fried so the outer bits are crisp, mixed with salty anchovy and capers to bring out the vegetables’ earthy sweetness. Fresh ricotta comes with toasted hunks of the excellent rustic Italian loaf from Clear Flour, cut into wedges that are still a bit chewy on the inside. The cheese is so smooth and rich that just a few bites satisfy, and there’s plenty on the plate to share between two or three people.
One night a server recommends three choices from the salumi board: a just-slightly smoky prosciutto di Parma, hard finocchiona salami, and sheep’s milk pecorino cheese, but the biggest draws on the plate are the tiny house-made accompaniments: vinegar-pickled fennel, sweet kumquat marmalade, sharp red onion. Another nice relish is the olive and celery root that matches perfectly with the appetizer of grilled octopus (a shame it came out a shade overcooked), though the smear of slow-cooked, buttery celery root puree on the plate, seasonal as it may be in chilly weather, is too sweet and out of balance with the rest of the dish. Tuscan kale salad is too tough, too roughly cut, and doesn’t have enough lemon dressing — toasting the pine nuts, too, might have made it more pleasing.
Both the dining room and bar at Cinquecento, in the former Rocca space, are on the second floor, and a few bar-area tables perch above the restaurant’s entry and dramatic staircase. Cinquecento looks like its owners have invested a lot in design and decor, and from the giant vase of blooming branches at the door to the dangerously low-hanging ceiling fixtures in the dining room, the place screams luxurious contemporary style.
Yes, it screams, pretty much continually. On another visit, this time a Friday night, the din was even worse. Three of us had trouble hearing at our small table. After we had ordered, the dining room was full and the lights were turned down. People in the party seated next to ours actually had to pull out cellphones and use their little glowing screens as flashlights to read the menu. I swear there must be some kind of strange sensory deprivation philosophy at work here.
And it’s a shame, because the menu, a greatest-hits of Italian classics, aims not to deprive but to indulge the senses with flavors big and subtle.
Pastas are consistently good. The classic spaghetti alla chittara al pomodoro is just that — good — and mushroom-truffle butter (made with truffle shavings and truffle oil) fettuccine, served with intense chanterelles, actually tastes like mushrooms. Bolognese isn’t knock-your-socks-off rich, but it hits the flavor mix of pork, veal, and herbs.
Fish is unusually various, with three or four choices each night. A big piece of excellent grilled swordfish — it’s line-caught and local — comes with romesco and flavorful eggplant caponata. A special of whole red snapper has its head on, the sweet fish set off by roasted potatoes and hot long peppers, a dish not to pass up for its intensity, which seems to work better than subtlety in this place.
There’s also a parchment-cooked local sole, the fish firm and flaky but delicate. The parchment is pulled open but left on, which is a nice presentation; servers should steer diners who order this dish toward a side of vegetables, as there’s nothing inside but fish and a bit of potato and leek. Broccoli rabe with hot chili flakes and garlic would overpower it, but Brussels sprouts with pancetta and thin slices of aromatic candied orange would be perfect.
Full-flavored Mediterranean branzino comes out of the kitchen sizzling hot and well matched to its bed of braised escarole. Less harmonious is the lobster served one night as a special. Tossed with squid ink spaghetti and fresh Fresno chilies, the crustacean is nicely prepared but you can’t actually taste it anymore once you’ve had a bite of the peppers.
Louder flavors are, in general, more successful at Cinquecento. The saltimbocca, thick pieces of veal wrapped with prosciutto and sitting on creamy, slow-cooked cabbage soaked in Marsala, is a very good dish, whereas porchetta, which looks beautiful and has a nicely crispy skin, falls flat, especially when roasted parsnips have too much fiber and are undercooked. Osso buco is classic, the meat braised to a melting consistency, the risotto with bite.
But after two hours of relentless noise, it’s almost a relief to get to dessert. Your best bet is a slim slice of toasty warm olive-oil zucchini cake, which comes with vanilla gelato melting on top. Lemon sorbet is grainy and not quite lemony enough, and bay laurel panna cotta is just too subtly flavored; the bay is undetectable (the restaurant seems to have figured this out and has recently replaced the bay with chocolate).
One night someone asked for Cinquecento’s equivalent of a combo plate, cookies with a glass of vin santo. But our server, in the dinnertime din, just heard cookies, and brought a plate of assorted biscotti. This was no big deal, really. So we asked for the check and made for the door, relieved and at last in the quiet night.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this Dining Out review of Cinquecento gave an incorrect address. The restaurant is located at 500 Harrison Ave.