As one drives through the back roads of Sudbury, amber-lit mansions punctuate the thick darkness, which threatens to contain bears possibly, or at least badgers and big-winged bugs. We are a long way from the South End, where chef Evan Deluty’s restaurant Stella first made a splash in 2005. With its gleaming white decor, late hours, and strong cocktails, it was instant bait for fashionable urbanites.
Now Deluty has joined forces with WAAF radio personality Greg Hill to open 29 Sudbury — essentially, the suburbanite’s Stella. It is a mansion to Stella’s 1-bedroom, two stories in a big old building that’s been gutted and redone with concrete floors, multiple bars and outdoor spaces, and an open kitchen. The first floor is raucous and casual, the second more sedate, with plush curved banquettes upholstered in black-and-tan geometric fabric. A group of women sink into one for dinner. “Ladies’ night? Kids at home?” asks a host. (File under: questions one doesn’t get in a city restaurant.) Service runs the gamut here — you’ll find seasoned pros and young people clearly waiting tables for the first time. An older couple is getting frisky at the bar. On a Friday night, the place is packed to the gills, the first floor louder than loud, conversation ricocheting off the hard surfaces. The open kitchen affords a view of each dish traveling from hustling staff member to hustling staff member to table, like batons in a relay.
There’s not much like this in these parts; the express purpose of 29 Sudbury is to provide those who live nearby a city dining experience without the drive. It’s clearly welcome.
Although the decor looks nothing like Stella’s, the menus have much in common: Italian food with an emphasis on pasta dishes and coal-fired flatbreads. Stella’s signature Bolognese is here, along with its fried artichoke hearts, linguine with asparagus cream and poached egg, pork Milanese, and more. Anyone who used to frequent Stella and has since moved to Sudbury will be thrilled.
Those dining without the benefit of nostalgia will be glad for a new hangout where the kitchen is still fine-tuning things.
Fried artichoke hearts are impossible to ruin, but the ones here are too heavily battered. They are good anyway, served with a tangy mustard remoulade. But the flavor of the artichokes gets lost.
This happens, too, with mussels, swimming in a saffron cream sauce. The shellfish, billed as spicy, aren’t. They also come free of shells, an unbilled surprise. 29 Sudbury offers raw bar — shrimp cocktail, clams, oysters. A round of oyster shooters seems an amusingly retro thing to order, an Asian-flavored preparation with raw quail egg, yuzu, soy, scallions, and lemon vodka (the presentation has since changed). The flavors work well together, although it is a surprise to learn that the $12 price tag includes only one shooter.
Artichokes crop up again on a pizza, a thin-crust rectangle also topped with caramelized onions, pesto, and horseradish aioli. The combination sounds strange, and it is, sweet and savory failing to harmonize. A Margherita version features wan chopped tomatoes. Coal-fired pizza ought to be the backbone of the menu, but 29 Sudbury’s offerings need work.
What is the backbone: pasta. Deluty is known for his Bolognese for a reason. The rich, deep, meaty sauce is just right on rigatoni, clinging to the ridged al dente pasta. Linguine with asparagus cream and a poached egg is a touch overcooked, but it adds to the comfort of the dish. It’s the perfect thing to eat if you are going through a breakup — cozy, with welcome heft, but with some of the optimistic (if out of season) flavors of spring. A bit less truffle flavor would be welcome.
Orecchiette with chili flakes, sausage, and cured tomatoes ought to be a thing of simple beauty, but it doesn’t stand a chance. The ear-shaped pasta is so gummy it sticks together in stacks, ear inside ear inside ear. But seafood risotto is a worthy rendition, chewy grains topped with plentiful mussels, shrimp, and more, all perfectly cooked.
Thus, a swordfish entree with roasted red potatoes and asparagus is all the more disappointing. It’s not just overcooked, it’s incinerated. And pork Milanese is a plate-filling slab of breaded meat topped with barely any tomato sauce or mozzarella, a dish that is simultaneously too much and not enough.
Desserts are made by a local baker, and are only marginally Italian. A raspberry tiramisu appears as a special one night, a pleasant twist on the original. But offerings skew more toward chocolate layer cake, a homey and pleasing version, moist cake with dark chocolate buttercream. It’s the kind of thing you want to eat cold straight from the icebox with a glass of milk late at night when everyone else is in bed.
One of 29 Sudbury’s most welcome attributes is its bar program. Draft beer skews local, from 1775 Tavern Ale from Battle Road Brewing Co. in Ipswich to seasonal offerings from the likes of Shipyard and Sam Adams. Peroni appears, a nod to Italy. There is less of a sense of place on the wine list, although it does have a section of whites and reds from Italy. A long list of cocktails seems designed to appeal to every taste, from sangria to sidecars. The former tastes exactly like liquid Jell-O; the latter is on the sweet side but solid. A drink called the 29 International contains elderflower liqueur, Aperol, and prosecco. Sounds lovely, but we are told it’s not available that night. Which of these ingredients could the bar have run out of?
It probably wouldn’t happen in Boston. But there is much to gain from having 29 Sudbury in the area, and one thing to lose: a long drive at the end of the night.
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Devra First can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.