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MAST’ working to master the craft

MAST’s Alla Diavola pizza fresh from the imported Italian oven, with a Margherita pizza behind it. david l. ryan/globe staff/Globe Staff

The first thing one sees upon entering Downtown Crossing restaurant MAST’ is the pizza oven. It is a glorious beast, imported from the old country. In its flaming maw, a pie goes from dough to done like that. The pizza maker is also imported from the old country, a lean guy in a white T-shirt, mouth set in a straight line of concentration. This is no hammy pizzeria-window show. He is working.

This is the first thing one sees, and one needn’t look further. The pies are the best offering at MAST’. The dough has structure; the crust is charred just enough. The O’MAST pizza, topped with tomato, fior di latte mozzarella, prosciutto, and crema di ricotta, is perfectly satisfying. The Alla Diavola, with salami, fior di latte, and arrabiata tomato sauce, is delicious but mild rather than devilish. Only the wild mushroom pie is a disappointment. It has been domesticated — it appears to be topped with standard-issue grocery store mushrooms, cottony and bland, without the billed white truffle oil.

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So order pizza. Have a drink. Hang out at the bar, or by the pizza bar, or in the downstairs lounge area. The restaurant — black with copper accents, the space carved up by columns and walls — works well for this. But in offering an ambitiously long menu of Italian snacks, salads, antipasti, pasta dishes, main courses, sides, and desserts, MAST’ bites off more than it can chew.

Beef meatballs one night are dry, but they come with lovely, flavorful tomato sauce. An appetizer of burrata and prosciutto di Parma is drizzled with balsamic and fig reduction, visually appealing and delicious, featuring good ingredients simply prepared (even if the kitchen skimps on the prosciutto). Arancini turn out to be one singular fried rice ball, but it is giant, stuffed with beef, peas, and mozzarella and served cute, in a little frying basket. A side of grilled “seasonal” vegetables (zucchini?) are nicely smoky and well salted.

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On an early visit, the casarecce pomodoro is a pared-back pleasure: twists of house-made pasta with bright tomato sauce, ricotta, basil, and garlic, fresh-tasting and nicely seasoned. Another night, the pasta is tough, the dish in need of salt. At lunch, gnocchi alla Sorrentina and bucatini all’amatriciana are solid options. But a dinner special of mushroom ravioli is reminiscent of bad packaged pasta, with a bitter note that lingers on the tongue. Paccheri alla Genovese with braised beef and pork tastes like onions and uncooked wine. As for pappardelle with wild boar ragu, the boar could be beef, the pasta has the texture of overworked pie dough, and the dried-out dish looks as though it’s been sitting under the heat lamp for hours.

Veal osso buco might have been sitting right next to it — dry meat atop polenta that has congealed into a pancake one can lift right off the plate. Whole fish in herbed broth with cherry tomatoes, garlic, and parsley is served over seafood-laden risotto. The fish is slightly dry, but the risotto holds up, the grains staunch yet creamy.

The most unfortunate dish is the prime ribeye — sour, watery, with none of the texture or flavor one associates with well-marbled beef. It is drizzled heavily in the truffle oil that went missing from our mushroom pizza. We flag our server, who is sweet and funny and attentive: Sorry. This doesn’t taste right. She whisks it away, then returns a few minutes later and sets the steak back on the table. “They say it’s fine. It’s just the seasoning. Would you like something else?” At least she offers. The steak remains, barely touched, until she clears. The charge remains, too: $49.

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So it’s no surprise when tasteless tiramisu arrives with a stray arugula leaf on the plate. It’s hard to feel much care is going into this food.

Creme brulee is served still flaming. Is it our birthday? Should we blow it out? The flames die too soon. The sugar is barely crisped or browned, and the custard tastes like lighter fluid. Many of the desserts here are centered around a theme of Nutella. A pizza coated in the spread is so tough we can hardly chew it; we lick off the Nutella halfheartedly and sip bad cappuccino. It has no foam and looks as though it was microwaved until it boiled over, then topped with a small yet violent explosion of cocoa powder.

A large section of the cocktail menu is devoted to riffs on the Negroni. We order several variations: the O’Mast (made with Jameson), the Alla Diavola (with fresh chile and pepperoncino-infused Campari), and a smoked Negroni with cubed Asiago dolce. When they arrive, we scratch our heads. No identifying garnishes — chiles, cheese — are present. And they all taste the same, no one smokier or spicier than the other. It’s not easy to order another cocktail: This one contains creme de violette, but they’re having a problem with the distributor. That one has pear puree, but they’ve run out. (Another night we try the O’Mast again, and it is quite good.)

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Burrata and prosciutto di Parma appetizer. david l. ryan/globe staff

How about some wine? The list is mainly Italian, with a wide range of prices. One can drink a 2009 Super Tuscan for $40 or splurge on a bottle of 2011 Ornellaia. Just check the prices before ordering: Some selections are less expensive by the glass than by the bottle. There are also draft beer staples and imported craft bottles, along with a few gluten-free ales.

Servers are a strong suit at MAST’. But staffers sometimes seem underutilized or undertrained. One lurks, filling water glasses obsessively and clearing random plates. Another smooths his hair with his hands, then goes right back to arranging bread in baskets.

Restaurateurs Marco Caputo, Anthony DePinto, and John DeSimone worked long and hard to open this place, grappling with construction delays. They are warm hosts, chatting with guests, speaking Italian with the staff. Yet it still feels as though they opened before they were ready. They are clearly aware things need work: A new chef, Palermo native Daniele Canfarotta, arrived at the beginning of November, and he officially took over in early December.

MAST’ is an abbreviation of “o’mast,” a bit of Neapolitan dialect that refers to the master of a craft. How nice it would be if the name were more apt.

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Note:

★ ★ ★ ★ Extraordinary ★ ★ ★ Excellent ★ ★ Good ★ Fair (No stars) Poor

Casarecce pomodoro. david l. ryan/globe staff/Globe Staff

Devra First can be reached at dfirst@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.