Forever, Centre Street Cafe was the tiny place with the line out the door for brunch. It was one colorful square in Jamaica Plain’s patchwork of restaurants — small, independent places serving sandwiches, baked goods, coffee, ice cream, vegetarian-friendly fare, and the dishes of Thailand, India, Japan, Scotland, Cuba, the Middle East, Ethiopia, and beyond. Throughout the neighborhood runs a Red Necklace of mom-and-pop pizza parlors, with Bella Luna and the Dogwood the polished clasps at either end.
But what was missing was a full-scale Italian restaurant. It was as if it were too easy. Why serve such beloved and familiar food when one might open a tea-focused Asian fusion bistro, or a place serving burgers named after the original sins on the site of a former church?
Then the team behind nearby tapas bar/book-and-music store Tres Gatos purchased Centre Street Cafe from its longtime owner. They turned it into an Italian restaurant, at last. But this is no place to come for heaping platters of ziti and chicken Parm, with red-checked tablecloths and raffia-wrapped bottles of Chianti. (Done right, incidentally, that place would kill.) This is Italian in the mode of new JP. (Nothing reveals the heart of a neighborhood more clearly than its stomach. See: the 2011 opening of the Hyde Square Whole Foods, which replaced the old Hi-Lo and became a symbol of gentrification.) There is a pared-back menu with four choices per course. It revolves around local ingredients, the dishes made with great care by executive chef Brian Rae (Rialto), sous chef Stephen Marcaurelle (Clio), and crew. Portions are modest, prices are not, and the restaurant is one of the neighborhood’s best.
This is because, foremost, the food is often delicious, and getting more so as the kitchen finds its feet.
Dinner begins with cicchetti, or snacks: crisp arancini made with mushrooms and cauliflower, in a fresh-tasting tomato sauce; a golden rectangle of polenta topped with tiny, tender turnips and cauliflower florets, enriched with the pork sausage nduja and black garlic aioli, enlivened by tangerine and fried sage leaves.
It isn’t clear what makes one dish a snack, another an appetizer, but meatballs are declared the latter. They are rich and smoky, with a satisfying springy texture, paired with tomato sauce and ricotta salata. Friends report a swordfish conserva to be excellent, so good they want to try it again. It doesn’t live up to their memories, the fish resembling bland tuna salad. But a salad of beets and carrots with sheep’s milk blue cheese, walnuts, and wine vinaigrette is simple, beautiful, and delicious.
Pasta is a highlight, each available as a half- or full portion. The simplest dish may be the best: handmade linguine, chewy yet tender, tossed with littleneck clams and flavored with green olives, lemon, and good olive oil. Then there is bucatini with tomato sauce, guanciale, pecorino, and stracciatella — spicy, meaty, rich but balanced. A plate of chestnut and goat cheese ravioli embraces flavors earthy and bright, with squash, capers, and blood orange-balsamic cream, sprinkled with brioche crumbs for welcome crunch. Buckwheat lasagna with cabbage, potato, and melted Fontina cheese is hearty, yet somehow not heavy. It comes with kale and sage pesto, which, when all is said and done, tastes much like any other pesto; the dish is subtler and more modern without it.
The main course is where unevenness is most often revealed. Arctic char sounds fresh and bright as can be in a clam and pepper broth with potatoes, greens, basil, and mint. One night it is a delight, the fish cooked perfectly, the skin lifted off and crisped to a shimmery crouton. Braised chicken thighs with lentils, pork belly, turnips, and thyme are tasty enough, but the dish doesn’t shine. On another visit, the two switch places. The Arctic char is bland, the chicken stupendous. The meat is tender and rich with flavor, the lentils spiked with plenty of acidity, a pleasure to eat with the crisped pork belly.
This is where Centre Street Cafe confuses. Will the mushroom risotto we swoon for one night — grains al dente, infused with deep, bosky flavor and a lilt of sweetness from parsnip foam — be just as good the next time? Some dishes are esoteric enough that when they don’t come together, instead of simply falling flat, they seem downright weird.
It is safe to say, though, that Allyson West’s desserts will be good. West, who previously worked at Tres Gatos and Sofra, is a talent. Her cannoli shells are light and crisp, their creamy filling edged with chopped chocolate and candied citrus. Luxurious mocha budino is topped with Marsala zabaglione, served with a stick of cherry shortbread that is one of the best cookies I’ve had in a while. After starting a meal with savory polenta, come full circle with lime polenta cake with blood orange, mint, and gorgeous pistachio gelato.
Service, too, is consistent. It is friendly, interactive, informative — the other thing that makes Centre Street Cafe one of JP’s best. It is a pleasure to explore the wine list, which is mainly Italian. It is a greater pleasure with knowledgeable guides, who always ask diners’ preferences, then pose astute follow-up questions. This leads us, one night, to a bottle of 2012 Cantine Valpane “Euli,” a grignolino both delightful and reasonable ($44), and pairing well with all the diverse dishes on our table.
The old Centre Street Cafe had a purple sign out front, the restaurant’s name in a wacky yellow font alongside a green palm tree. Now the sign is black with dignified white lettering. Inside, yellow walls and bright paintings have been replaced by white walls, dark trim, dangling bare bulbs, and white, pressed tin-style panels. Out with the old aesthetic, in with the new.
But by day, these panels pull back to reveal colorful tile mosaics. The restaurant transforms, too, into something closer to the original. Lunch brings meatball subs and macaroni with cheese, ham, and pineapple into the equation — upscaled versions, to be sure, but more accessible.
And Centre Street Cafe preserves the weekend brunch. There are house-made doughnuts and kale smoothies. There are biscuits and gravy, huevos mexicanos, pancakes, and old-school, thin-cut bacon. Something to make everyone happy.
Of course, there is a line out the door.
★ ★ ★ ★ Extraordinary ★ ★ ★ Excellent | ★ ★ Good
★ Fair | (No stars) Poor