Editor’s note: Dining Out will feature a rotation of guest reviewers until the Globe names a new critic. Starred reviews will return at that time.
On a bustling Saturday night — and in the right light — the crowd at Sorellina can appear to be perpetually one Negroni away from an orgy.
The light at Sorellina, I should add, is never not right.
One of chef-owner Jamie Mammano’s super-pricey, super-stylish Boston locations — along with the likes of Mistral, Ostra, and Teatro — Sorellina just marked a decade in business, and for excellent reasons.
To be clear, nothing overtly lascivious is on display at the utterly posh, Italo-Mediterranean restaurant near Copley Square. But Sorellina’s ambience vibrates in a fever-wave of suggestion and restraint.
The long, center-stage banquettes that cut the high-ceilinged room in two are white, as are the chairs, and the crisp cloths on tables suggest hotel sheets (and also heaven). Suspended from the ceiling above: more white sheets, actually sound-absorption panels, which help turn din into hush. The customers are equally crisp, turned out in silks and cashmere, starched shirts and pocket squares, with not a button left unclasped. That light streaking the room — it manages to be both dusky and cinematically stark, like Klieg lights overlayed with the “Penthouse” filter. And most critically, a mesmerizing black-and-white photograph glows on the back wall, lit from behind and Cineplex-size, shrouding the fierce work that goes on in a high-stakes restaurant kitchen.
The New York Times called the recent revamp of Playboy magazine an act of “strategic concealment,” with outright nudity subtracted in the face of so much tedious Internet porn. Sorellina got on the culinary version of this train 10 years ago, and for diners it pays off with each visit.
The subject of the photograph that mysteriously animates the room, conjuring the sensation you’ve stepped into an enigmatic masterpiece by an auteur filmmaker à la Pasolini or Antonioni, circa the ’70s? It’s two rows of trees at Versailles, former crib of Marie Antoinette, sealing the deal on a barely contained, coolly understated decadence.
It’s easy to go on. The four single-occupancy bathrooms smell of free-floating perfume. The lounge, an enclave that features an elbow of white bar top and two cryptic Modernist sculptures wedged amid rows of bottles, is partially obscured from the dining room by a wooden divider. One gets to hear but not quite witness whatever’s happening on the other side. The busboys, black-clad, spirit the room with a silent, stealthy agility.
One night, a couple sits in conversation with the affable bartender. “This isn’t the kind of thing I say about food,” says 40-something wife, nodding to her truffle fries. “But these are orgasmic.”
Seventy-something husband, with a senator’s hair and august bearing, says, grimacing: “Please take them away.”
Yes, there’s also food at Sorellina, where Marga Raffucci is executive chef — much of it superb, even as it never pushes any experimental envelope. As with the restaurant’s atmosphere, a number of the dishes have a frisky knack for insinuating more earthen concerns. Truffles snake through the menu, though they tend to make their point foundationally, rather than as lobbed bombs. Other seductive interlopers include oysters, anchovies, squid ink, blood orange, figs, bone marrow.
Yet to start, the Caesar salad is an act of perfect chastity. The romaine, with brightness and snap, levels watery bursts; a millisecond later the anchovy-laced dressing performs its wonderful dirty work. The simplicity here gives lie to the chefly impulse to overload, show too much, whether to justify nose-bleed prices or parade bombastic camera cuisine. It requires a confident hand.
The burrata, a small — very small — pillow of milk-drunk mozzarella, comes curled with ribbons of gamy speck and a pungent puddle of aged balsamic. Meanwhile, the grilled octopus gets it done with a flavorful bed of squid ink couscous. As does the luxuriant foie gras, topped with a glistening gelèe that could second as a cabaret girl’s lipstick.
Two otherwise unremarkable appetizers are exemplars of visual beauty. The carpaccio — venison rather than beef — is laid out like someone’s private freak flag, colorfully adorned with pickled apples, beets, and horseradish aioli. But it lacks personality. And the tuna tartare is overdressed, the fish mugged thoroughly by spicy mustard aioli and chile vinegar.
Yet these lapses can amount to almost nothing — surprising as that is —when you’re basking in such flattering light, treated so royally by an accessible, knowledgeable, never hovering wait staff.
I have my sights set on spaghetti with prawns, chile, and guanciale. Yet even after successive passes, the dish never nears its promise. The spaghetti: ropy; the guanciale: buried; the flavor of shrimp: faint. The heat from chile, however: just right.
Maccheroncelli with Wagyu beef meatballs, on the menu since Sorellina opened, are separately spectacular but at odds together. What should be a sizzling Tinder hook-up fizzles at first glance. Is the idea that you cut a fat piece of pasta, then lop off a chunk of meatball, then somehow spear both? Campanelle, funnel-shaped pasta with a ruffled edge, throws everything at you without apology — osso bucco Bolognese, truffles, bone marrow, kitchen sink. The Tuscan at my table calls it “a mess.” But it bowls me over in the best kind of way.
And entrees and desserts pay off brilliantly on the promise of that initial Caesar. The halibut is transcendent, in a leek broth with black truffles and potato gnocchetti. The parts mesh subtly, symphonically. Both veal entrees are reason to eat here. The Milanese, pounded thin, fried to exquisite crispness, carries a bone-in handle you’ll want to grip. The saltimbocca translates to buttery medallions of meat ringed with crisped prosciutto sitting on whipped truffle potatoes. The maitakes extend the heady flirtation.
With one dessert after another, the meal enters higher realms. You thought tiramisu had been clichéd right out of existence? Nope. Here it’s given magisterial treatment, familiar tastes and textures heightened and made truly elegant. The lemon budino, a zingy and lush custard, is speared with contrast: broken semolina cookies, triangles of glossy grapefruit, tiny toasted marshmallows.
This is what the meal has been building to, and this is where it ends, in the just-right light. Suggestion and restraint give way to satisfaction. You could be forgiven if you need to step outside for a cigarette.
1 Huntington Ave., Back Bay, Boston, 617-412-4600, www.sorellinaboston.com. All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices Appetizers $16-$26. Pasta $18-$45. Entrees $32-$47. Desserts $10-$18.
Hours Sun 5:30-9:30 p.m., Mon-Thu 5:30-10 p.m., Fri-Sat 5:30-11 p.m. (Bar Sun 5-10:30 p.m., Mon-Thu 5-11 p.m., Fri-Sat 5 p.m.-midnight.)
Noise level Evocative hum.
What to order Truffle fries, romaine salad, burrata with speck, grilled octopus, campanelle with Bolognese, halibut, veal (Milanese or saltimbocca), lemon budino, tiramisu.
Ted Weesner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.