It’s hard to cozy up to any North End restaurant. It seems like the area is so different than it used to be, crowded with tourists and shops, like Pinkberry, that are distinctly not Italian. You half except Goofy or Mickey to pop out of one of them.
On a Saturday night, maneuvering the sidewalks takes effort. Long lines form around the block to get into Giacomo’s Restaurant, Pomodoro, Daily Catch, Modern Pastry, and Mike’s Pastry.
And then you get to Rina’s Pizzeria & Cafe, a 10-seat spot (a counter and tall tables) with food displayed in the window, and bubbling pies coming out of a large red gas oven. Opened in June, the space has four TVs, showing “La Dolce Vita,” “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “Some Like It Hot,” and “Ocean’s Eleven.” Everyone is friendly. At the helm is Luigi DeMarco, who is making pizza and notices everyone coming in. He owned the former Caffe Graffiti in the North End and lives here. “I walk to work 120 yards,” he says. Many of the diners call him by name.
Besides pizza, panini, and calzones, Rina’s menu offers pasta and entrees, dishes geared to residents who want takeout. With so few seats, you can’t make plans to meet friends here, but if you do, and you’re lucky enough to get a trio of stools, you’re perched high trying to share dishes.
The food is wonderful. Meatballs ($5) in tomato sauce are feathery balls in sauce you might want to eat with a spoon. Those same meaty orbs in French bread with provolone ($8) is a gigantic, luscious, crusty panino. Arancini ($4) are tall pyramids in more of that wonderful red sauce. The rice is molded around ground beef and peas.
You get the feeling that many things in this tiny spot are made earlier in the day and reheated. The arancini don’t suffer, and neither do the meatballs, but a rotisserie chicken and roast potatoes ($12) is one of the few disappointments, with dry breast meat and shriveled potatoes. Another near-miss is a Caesar with dressing that tastes distinctly like creamy Italian from a bottle.
Dough used for pizza and calzones is flavorful and chewy. But a simple margherita with tomato sauce and mozzarella ($9) is too wet with sauce one night and the topping never adheres to the dough. Napoli pizza ($11), a similar pie, only made with anchovies, is exceptional, and dramatically different on another night, as if the sauce changed to a thicker smear on the dough. Sausage, spinach, and mozzarella ($10) in a calzone has everything: crusty exterior, juicy filling, enough for today, tomorrow’s lunch, and perhaps the following day too. Servings here are enormous and DeMarco is watching to make sure you like everything.
The Varano Group is behind Rina’s, and runs Strega (the original location is next door), the new Strip, and others. The name Strega is on the red oven and that sauce, sold bottled here, is a Strega specialty.
Even though it’s part of a successful small empire, this place is so good because of DeMarco, who is running it like a mom-and-pop. He acts like an Italian mama, who calls out from behind the cook’s counter to see how you’re doing and how you like the food. And it makes you like it even more.
RINA’S PIZZERIA & CAFE
371 Hanover St., North End, Boston, 617-456-5700, www.rinasnorthend.com. All major credit cards. Small step at entrance, restroom not wheelchair accessible.
Prices Appetizers and salads $4-$10. Panini, pizza, calzones $7-$13. Pasta and entrees $12-$15. Desserts $10.
Liquor Wine and beer
Hours Daily 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
What to order Meatballs in sauce, meatball Parmigiana, arancini, margherita pizza, Napoli pizza, sausage and spinach calzone
Sheryl Julian can be reached at email@example.com.