Swathed in curtains of crimson velvet, our booth at M.C. Spiedo seems designed for an assignation or the hatching of a Machiavellian plot. Enfolded in its plush embrace, we are fending off the advances of a server who has a sweet smile and a knack for sales. “What would you like from the market cart?” she asks, gesturing to the appetizers she has wheeled over. In truth, nothing. The olives and bean salads look as though they are fermenting inside corked glass jars. But we don’t have the heart to turn her away.
So, burrata, please. “What else?” Deviled eggs with taleggio and marjoram. “What else?” OK, fine. Prosciutto with roasted pears. “And what else?” Enough!
The burrata is oversalted. The eggs are good, basic deviled eggs that taste nothing like taleggio. The dishes are served straight off the cart, where they have been rolling around for . . . how long? I hope nobody sneezed.
The booth offers a view of gold columns, a white marble bar, grand light fixtures with shades bearing scenes that resemble Old Master paintings, and walls stacked with decorative wine bottles high, high up to the far-away ceiling. This is the Italian Renaissance channeled via a hotel restaurant; M.C. Spiedo is housed thematically inside the Renaissance Boston Waterfront Hotel. The menu is stocked with dishes ripped from the pages of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks (man liked fennel in his salad) and inspired by the banquets of the Medicis and the Borgias. As for the market cart, it isn’t attributed to anyone in particular.
“Spiedo” means spit, a device used in the cooking of the era. There is one in the kitchen here, upon which suckling pigs and chickens are impaled. “M.C.” stands for Mark and Clark — chefs Mark Gaier and Clark Frasier, best known for Arrows, the pioneering garden-to-table restaurant they ran for 25 years in Ogunquit, Maine. (They are also behind the similarly named MC Perkins Cove there. Summer Winter, the Burlington restaurant they operated, has closed.) Old Italy is a world away from Maine, but history does have a place in today’s restaurants. Consider the South End’s Kitchen, where dishes are inspired by recipes from the past. And then there’s Medieval Manor.
Yet a conversation overheard just after the restaurant opened in February offers an early hint the concept may be folly. “It’s Italian Renaissance food,” a bartender explains to a hotel guest plainly confused by the menu. Blank look. “It’s Italian comfort food.” Still blank. “There’s pizza.” The man’s face lights up. Pizza. Now that everyone can understand.
The rest is often lost in translation.
There’s nothing wrong at all with Da Vinci’s salad, a pile of tender lettuces and herbs with fennel and vinaigrette. Crepes rolled around mild gorgonzola, baked, and served with arugula are a decadent appetizer. M.C. Spiedo offers an assortment of meats and cheeses that can be mixed and matched with condiments; Arrows’ house-cured prosciutto and paper-thin slices of salami pair nicely with spiced pear preserve. A swordfish kebab is simple and excellent: moist chunks of fish cross-hatched with grill marks, flavored with bay leaf and rosemary, served with segments of blood orange.
But “lasagna from the Borgia table”? “It’s not like the usual lasagna,” the servers are required to explain time and again. The recipe is from the 16th century; the dish was offered at court banquets. It doesn’t provide the gooey, bubbling pleasures of tomato sauce and mozzarella. Instead, it’s pasta layered with meat, ricotta, pine nuts, and golden raisins. It is sweet and dry.
The grand tortellini and meat torta, from the banquets of Cosimo de’ Medici, looks outrageous — the kind of vast pie a boy king might have sliced open with his sword, releasing live pigeons. It is a tremendous portion, a crust surrounding meat, tortellini, whole meatballs, and more. The pastry is nut brown and gorgeous. But the filling, again, is sweet and dry, the tortellini hefty, the meatballs dense.
Maybe there is a reason some recipes fade into history.
Spit-roasted meat, however, is timeless. That is, unless all moisture is roasted out of the chicken, as it is here. The suckling pig goes into a dish with macaroni, sausage, beans, and an egg — again dry, and crying out for seasoning, bland from first bite to last.
M.C. tagliatelle features pasta that is lovely, golden and light. It is served with guinea hen, oranges, onions, almonds, and kale, a Renaissance-style flavor profile that seems modern — full of contrasts, not too heavy, not too sweet. On one occasion, it is quite good, the bird’s skin crisp and browned, everything in balance. On another visit, the dish is gummy, with too many onions. A braised veal shank with caramelized onion sauce is gummy, too.
At least the basics — the dishes people will order again and again at a restaurant that is, after all, inside a hotel — need to be reliable. Pizza is decent, although the crust is bready and could use salt. But Bolognese, served with that lovely tagliatelle, is bland, with no depth of flavor. And Leonardo’s veal burger — with fontina, prosciutto, and golden raisin mostarda — is an inedibly salty patty on a bun that’s burned black. If you toasted it at home, you would throw it away and start over.
A chocolate hazelnut torte is a busy dessert, strewn with sauces and nuts and brittles. 1500s Firenze cheesecake — again, the server says, not like the usual — is a dense concoction with the flavors of fruitcake. Catherine de’ Medici’s orange granita is too sweet, but it’s refreshingly light after all the heaviness. Grazie, Cat. You knew how to end a meal.
What’s the saving grace? The staff. They are still learning, but they are friendly, hospitable, and attentive. And a fine range of Italian wines by the glass doesn’t hurt, from a sparkling rose from the Veneto to aglianico from Campania, reasonably priced, food friendly, and more interesting than your usual suspects.
Arrows was ahead of its time and beloved. One wants the team behind it to succeed again. On a recent evening, Frasier’s distinctive blond mop appears, bobbing from table to table as he greets guests. That’s sweet, but he’s needed in the kitchen. A unique concept can make a restaurant stand out. But the best way to do that is still, and always, by serving great food.
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Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.