I need to go back to elementary school. Until recently, I was pretty sure I knew how to count and use basic English vocabulary words and stuff. I was happily going about thinking “chain” was a five-letter word, and that “a group of restaurants that share the same name and, most of the time, the same or a very similar menu” was a fair definition of the C-word. I’ve now learned — through watching TV! the best way to learn! — that “chain” is actually a four-letter word, and that Legal Sea Foods is not one. CEO Roger Berkowitz told me, in his latest humorous ad campaign for the restaurants. “When you say chain, it’s almost as if it’s soulless,” he said in a recent Globe story on the commercials. (Have you been to the Dedham restaurant?)
Now, I have referred to Legal as a chain, probably many times, and though my book larnin’ may be lacking, my sense of propriety is intact: I would never cuss in print. I don’t consider “chain” the pejorative Berkowitz does. There are good chains. There are bad chains. I think Legal is a pretty good one, as it happens. There’s an emphasis on customer service, it’s a reliable place to eat with family of all ages and configurations, and it’s possible to get a tasty meal with some consistency. And I admire the way the business is run, from the emphasis on quality to the strategy for expansion we’ve seen Legal employ in recent years. Opening spinoffs like Legal C Bar (Legal with better cocktails) and Legal Crossing (Legal goes late-night) is a smart way to expand the brand, capitalize on trends, draw new customers, and give staff a chance to stretch.
The latest concept to debut is Legal Oysteria in Charlestown. The slant this time: Legal goes to Italy. (The name is a seafoodization of the Italian word “osteria.”) The location: the former Olives, where chef Todd English’s legacy went up in flames, more than once. The new tenant is an instant win for Charlestown residents, who can definitely count on Legal Oysteria to be on fire less often than its predecessor.
Those who frequented Olives in its most recent incarnation — probably most of Charlestown, which could really use more, and more-diverse, local hangouts — will recognize this space. Its heart is the marble-topped bar at the center. The brick oven is situated at the back, and at the front are floor-to-ceiling windows that look out onto City Square. The lines are clean. The place looks good. The soundtrack at night is still the loud thump-thump that terrorized Olives. The restroom could still be tidier. But over the black wrought-iron gates of the entrance hangs a sign of change: an oversize oyster shell, open to reveal a giant “pearl.”
As it was at Olives, the warmth of the staff at Legal Oysteria is one of the place’s best attributes. There are moments of tone-deafness, chumminess veering into stalker territory, but the servers are attentive and trained to exude excitement in fairly genuine fashion.
The weakest point might just be the oysters. The raw ones, that is. Grilled with fennel butter or baked with shrimp, pancetta, and mushroom, they taste wonderful. And fried they are divine, with plenty of bright flavors alongside: a tangy sauce, shaved red onion, arugula, and lemon. But on the half-shell, they are a disaster, still attached to the shell, several butchered by an errant knife, liquor spilled, grit included. Eating them, I’m just glad the poor person who opened them has walked away with his or her fingers intact. (I assume. I hope.) If it is going to reach for the pun, this Oysteria really needs to serve great oysters.
But the impetus behind the place isn’t so much the seafood as the Italian accent. Chef Gina Palmacci and Legal executive chef Rich Vellante both have Italian roots, so perhaps that’s why the concept feels so natural. The more spinoffs Legal launches, the farther the menus travel from the original. It’s like watching an artist’s paintings evolve. With Oysteria, we finally see a full embrace of abstraction: This is barely recognizable as Legal Sea Foods. In other words: We’ve got chowder. After that, all bets are off.
Both cocktail and wine lists lean Italian, the former emphasizing prosecco and amaro, the latter Friuli and Piemonte. (The beer list ignores the theme altogether. There’s not even the obligatory Peroni or Moretti.)
There are small plates — chickpea and shrimp fritters, which taste like panisses from Southern France, spiked with seafood. They’re great. So are ricotta fritters, light and crisp, served with spicy honey. (The kitchen here isn’t timid about heat, which can result in dishes like steak pizzaiolo, the meat drowning in a sloppy blurt of unexpectedly fiery red sauce. It looks a mess, although the flavors are appealing — unless, of course, you happen not to like spicy food.)
There is charred octopus, the unofficial Appetizer of 2014. Here, meaty tendrils are served with tomato, potato, and coriander vinaigrette: smashing on one occasion, dry on another. There is seafood antipasto, a tumble of suckered purple octopus tentacles and curvy coral shrimp and white curls of calamari, the palette and geometry of the sea on display. But that’s where the glory ends, the seafood rubbery, the flavors pale. Ligurian fish stew, a sort of Italian bouillabaisse, is also surprisingly bland.
At the other end of the spectrum is pizza topped with sopressata, stracciatella, banana peppers, and red sauce, the richness of salami-esque meat and creamy cheese offset by the tang of the peppers and zippy sauce. It’s pure late-night pizza parlor fare, with all its inherent satisfactions.
Swordfish salmoriglio is a simple, successful presentation, the fish thick and moist and lightly charred, flavored with lemon and herbs and served over tender salt-cod gnocchi. And a whole roast fish is nicely cooked, too, embellished with a spill of potatoes, tomatoes, and briny olives. “So, that comes with the head on and everything, OK?,” the server asks. Apparently not every customer is thrilled to find out that whole means whole.
A pasta dish is a distillation of what Oysteria wants to be and the fine-tuning it needs to get there. Very, very thin sheets of pasta, so delicate as to warrant the name “silk handkerchiefs,” are served with pesto. That’s it. Simple, pure, and light. But it needs a light hand to pull it off. On our plate, the pasta is just overcooked so that it’s gummy. The pesto is bland, in need of salt, at least. It’s the difference between a standout dish and a disappointment. With a little more care and attention, what’s on this plate — and in this space — could be just right.
As for this space, it is a bit strange to eat here without its being Olives, after all those years. But perhaps the strangest thing is how little one thinks of Olives when one visits. The place doesn’t feel haunted. Nor does it feel that the spirit has left the building. It’s simply the next thing.
In part, that’s because it’s Legal — Oysteria, perhaps, but a brand we all know and understand, a preexisting notion with an identity strong enough to stand up to what came before. I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the C-word when each link benefits from being part of this chain.
★ ★ ★ ★ Extraordinary ★ ★ ★ Excellent ★ ★ Good ★ Fair (No stars) Poor
Devra First can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.