Editor’s note: Devra First recently stepped down as restaurant critic. Dining Out will feature a rotation of guest reviewers until the paper names a new critic. Starred reviews will return at that time.
I’m an Italian by marriage, and every meal with my extended family ends with stories of Grandpa Mario, a first-generation Italian-American who lived his life fast and bold. After attaining financial success, he often spent lavishly on his friends and loved ones. He was a good Catholic, but was so notoriously impatient that he’d receive his Communion wafer, then duck out of church before Mass was over. When it came to food, he eschewed trends for classics. Want a quintessential Italian meal? He always knew just the place in any city. And whenever he found a dish he loved, he wouldn’t back down until you tried it . . . and agreed.
I never met the man, but I like his standards. And so I can’t help but wonder what Mario would have thought of La Motta’s Italian Specialties, the new outpost in the South End from the Aquitaine Group, which previously operated Union Bar and Grille out of the space for more than a decade. Pitched as a midcentury red sauce restaurant in the style of Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, it aims to be the kind of haunt that Mario would have loved. But the joint — as they like to call it — doesn’t fully execute that vision.
With five restaurants in the South End, including the stylish Italian trattoria Cinquecento, the Aquitaine Group has had a hand in shaping SoWa into the swank urban swath it has become. But a lot has changed at 1357 Washington St. since Union Bar and Grille first opened in 2003 (even that extra “e” in Grille seems quaint now), including the neighborhood’s palate. While he says the restaurant was still profitable, group founder Seth Woods and his team decided to shutter Union last year to pursue a dream: creating a venue that served the Italian-American dishes many of them grew up with. La Motta is a family name, and for Woods, it’s personal.
After a $1 million renovation, the space has been reconfigured. As guests enter, they are now greeted by both a 12-seat U-shaped bar, centered in the room, and the gregarious host, who does his part to set a family-style tone, cooing over you like a great-aunt. Red leather banquettes are backed with a simple floral velvet brocade. A gorgeous assemblage of vintage oil paintings and archival photographs lines the walls in the main dining room, which seats 70. There are plenty of lovely touches throughout, like the tin-tiled ceiling and a gallery of antique kitchen implements that serves as an entryway to the chef’s stations.
Patrons pull their bent-wood chairs up to rough-hewn oak tables. Large chalkboards broadcast menus and bon mots. One evening, the quote written over the bar is “Make Haste Slowly,” a mantra that surely would have made Mario smirk.
The menu might have, too. The creation of chef de cuisine Justin Winters, who also oversaw the opening of Cinquecento, it seems torn, seeking to straddle red sauce staples and upscale, more-modern Italian fare. There is classic giardiniera, a simple plate of house-pickled cauliflower, carrots, and other local vegetables. But there are also deviled eggs, creamy yolks mingling with spice-flecked Sicilian tuna and artichoke tapenade in a satisfying bite. The bread is from Iggy’s, but it comes with butter, not olive oil, another nod to the red sauce establishments La Motta’s aims to emulate.
Appetizers are erratic. Skip the pork and veal meatball, which arrives on a plate of sweet house tomato sauce but is otherwise bland, and opt for the arancini, crisp fried exteriors encasing soft centers of creamy fontina and mascarpone. Fried mozzarella sticks seem made by not a nonna but Papa Gino’s.
The classic calamari is exactly what you expect: delicately breaded and served with tomato sauce, sea salt, and lemon. But better to order the grilled octopus. A server-recommended standout, it’s braised in red wine and orange juice with bay leaves, then roasted in olive oil just before serving. Nickel-size slices are matched with pickled onions and strips of soppressata, plus a hint of chile, which adds brightness to the dish.
Another standout is the borlotti bean soup, more of a rich stew with escarole, flavored by rendered ham hock. Should the snowpocalypse return to these parts, I would strap on my boots and go out of my way to get a bowl.
Pizzas are cooked in a four-deck rotating oven, which creates thin, crisp crusts. Here again soppressata stands out, in the house La Motta pie, adding a salty spark that’s balanced by the sweetness of the red onion.
You could easily make a meal from appetizers and pizza at La Motta’s. And it seems the entrees have been a work in progress, with the restaurant switching from family-style to individual portions, and Aquitaine Group partner Jeffrey Gates wading into the comments on early Yelp reviews. The chicken Parmesan, a thin-pressed cutlet marinated overnight in buttermilk and garlic, was first served with pasta on the side. It now comes on a bed of linguine, moist with a toasted, crisp breading that delights the Parm aficionado at my table.
Pasta isn’t made at La Motta’s, but it is well prepared, with a satisfying chewiness. The sauces often only come close to doing it justice. Rigatoni is al dente when served with Bolognese, but cream overwhelms the flavors of the wild boar, sausage, and pancetta in the dish. The lasagna has a crisp char on the edges, but the fennel sausage layered within fails to pack a punch.
The waitstaff is attentive and informed, though apt to steer diners to the most expensive menu items when asked for suggestions — the fried pork chop and veal T-bone Marsala, $28 and $33 respectively. Shell out the extra dollars for the veal, which comes on a bed of polenta earthy with oyster, black trumpet, and beech mushrooms. The pork chop is nicely cooked, but without the accompanying vinegar peppers, it’s a dull bite.
The ladyfingers in tiramisu arrive soggy, but cannoli come through, their light crusts filled with creamy ricotta spiked with vanilla and orange zest.
At a restaurant trying to emulate classic Italian-Americana, the presence of a hazelnut skillet cookie served with caramel and Marshmallow Fluff seems odd (can you imagine Sinatra eating Fluff?). If you can push that aside — and judging from the number of skillets on tables, many patrons can — it’s a very sweet treat that’s best shared with a group.
Cocktails are often just as disconnected from the theme. In the Hot & Dirty, the house-infused Sriracha pickle juice drowns out the vodka — a Vlasic cocktail. The Paloma seems more suited to a beach bar, with its mix of tequila, grapefruit, and lime. The best bets are a classic Negroni and a fig Manhattan, the muddled fruit puree pleasingly sweet. The beer selections and the wine list, with its 85 Italian bottles, aim to satisfy, not impress. Pours are generous, emblematic of the hospitality already firmly in place at La Motta’s.
So what would Grandpa Mario think of the joint? It would leave him puzzled. He always knew just what he wanted. La Motta’s still seems uncertain of exactly what it wants to be.
LA MOTTA'S ITALIAN SPECIALTIES
1357 Washington St., South End, Boston, 617-338-5300, www.lamottaboston.com.
All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices Appetizers $2.50-$13.95. Entrees $17.95-$33.95. Desserts $6.95-$7.95.
Hours Sun-Wed 5-10 p.m. (bar until midnight), Thu-Sat 5-11 p.m. (bar until 1 a.m.).
Noise level Convivial.
What to order Deviled eggs, arancini, borlotti bean soup, La Motta pizza, chicken Parmesan, cannoli.