In 2005, sisters Carla and Christine Pallotta opened Nebo, an Italian restaurant on the edge of the North End. The menu was inspired by food their mother cooked when they were growing up. The space looked modern, but its heart was at least in part old school. A group of regulars, Italian guys of a certain age, used to come in for spicy bowls of tripe like their own mothers once made.
Now Nebo itself has grown up and moved out. The Pallottas closed the original restaurant and in July reopened downtown, on the Greenway. The new space looks great: It is loud and stylish, with exposed ductwork and vaulted brick ceilings, an open kitchen and a marble bar. It hasn’t moved far geographically, but spiritually its orientation is very different. It faces the city and belongs to the city, rather than just one neighborhood. There’s more of a crowd now, and a serious after-work scene (I’m not sure I’ve ever heard more blatant pickup lines in my life).
Yet in many ways the restaurant still feels the same, old school at heart. The proprietors are in the house; I spot one of the sisters gossiping avidly with an employee one evening. The menu hasn’t changed much, just expanded slightly. Sweet, tender smelts are still offered, the tiny fish fried golden and crisp. Nebo’s zucchini “lasagna” remains, the dish with which the Pallottas once triumphed on “Throwdown! With Bobby Flay.” And tripe will be served come fall. What has been notably absent: pizza. The original ovens were faulty, a major snafu for a place like Nebo. Replacements are up and running, but pies aren’t being served (the official word is they’ll be back by the end of the week). Ask servers about it and they say, “The sisters refuse to send out anything they can’t stand 100 percent behind.”
It’s an admirable stance, but one that needs to be applied across the board. There are other dishes here in need of attention.
Including the simplest, caprese salad. According to press materials, the restaurant’s motto is “simplicity demands the finest ingredients,” but Nebo’s caprese features mozzarella with crunchy red tomatoes that look nothing like the ones we generally see in New England in September. It’s topped with the tiniest bits of chopped basil, so scant the flavor barely comes into play. There’s nothing artful or lush about it.
Funghi selvaggi, creamy mascarpone polenta, is lush and almost artful. It’s topped with a fried egg that’s key: The bites with crisp-edged white or creamy yolk are great. The bites without aren’t. The mushroom ragu that tops the polenta has an oddly sour aftertaste.
The winning zucchini lasagna could also use fine-tuning. It’s a genius idea. In place of noodles, use strips of zucchini, making the dish light and fresh again. But the zucchini is breaded and fried, and the coating becomes heavy and soggy in the sauce. There isn’t enough salt in the mix. And on one occasion our lasagna is served still cold at the center.
Ricotta gnocchi ought to be ethereal, but these are dense and chewy. They are served with sausage and broccoli rabe that is pea green and limp. There is an argument to be made for cooking things like rabe for extended periods of time, until they practically melt in the mouth. This isn’t that. It looks awful.
Fettuccine al nero, however, is stunning: black squid-ink pasta laced with pine nuts, raisins, and flakes of salt cod. But the salt cod tastes slightly funky and the dish is heavy on oil.
Oil is generally where Nebo goes right, though. A main course of vitello milanese, often bland and dull, is spot on here. The veal is tender and perfectly seasoned, the cutlet crisped to a light caramel brown, the meat topped with arugula and drizzles of aioli, bringing sharp, vivid flavors into the mix. And misto fritto is an impressive platter of shrimp, calamari, and smelts, all perfectly fried. The accompanying lemon and aioli don’t add enough contrast, however. The dish really needs salt, and no matter how many times we ask for it, we can’t get any.
At Nebo, this seems a fluke. Servers here have personality, which can be good or bad, but they are also knowledgeable. So even if you don’t care what your server’s personal favorites are and he insists on telling you all meal long, he will still be able to elucidate the merits of various red wines and steer you nimbly to a nebbiolo you will be happy to drink. (For what it’s worth, I found his favorite cocktail, a mix of gin, Lillet, and ginger beer over grapefruit ice, too heavy on the ginger beer, although I did enjoy the effect of the melting citrus. I preferred the Smoke Over Bourbon, an unlikely mix of bourbon, St. Germain, lemon, Scotch, and prosecco that bridges summer and fall nicely.) And even if your server begins the meal with bonhomie so infectious everyone at the table comments upon it, and by the end seems mysteriously downtrodden, she will still make sure you have everything you need. Except salt. No salt for you.
Grilled bread with garlic and olive oil, however, anyone will be happy to bring. They really push the bruschetta aglio e olio. If it seems that you have ordered too much food and won’t need bread to boot, but your server says you will, don’t listen. It’s grilled bread. It’s good. Get it if you want it. Don’t if you don’t. Another quirk: On some occasions, servers mention food or wine Nebo is “featuring” that night. These items, however, appear on the regular menu; they aren’t specials. What does this even mean, then? It is a mystery.
However, if acqua pazza is a special, it is actually special, trout with tomatoes and fennel, light and bright and nicely cooked. Paccheri con amatriciana is laudably simple, tubes of pasta with spicy tomato sauce and bites of pancetta, topped with a cloud of ricotta. Meatballs have deep, truly meaty flavor and good texture, neither dense nor mushy. Pappardelle bolognese is similarly satisfying, noodles topped with a rich ragu that tastes as though it’s spent hours simmering in a crusty pot atop Nonna’s rickety stove.
For dessert, our server’s favorite is “Ma’s creamy ricotta pie,” which didn’t do much for me. My favorite: the spumoni sundae, which involves pistachio and vanilla gelato, espresso-spiked fudge, dark, syrupy cherries, billows of whipped cream, and a sprinkle of pistachios.
Judge for yourself. Nebo is in flux. Soon you’ll be able to order a bowl of tripe that tastes like the North End, while looking out at our city of neighborhoods, stitched together by a Greenway turning the colors of autumn.
★★★★ Extraordinary ★★★Excellent ★★ Good ★ Fair (No stars) PoorDevra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.