SALEM — Everything you need to know about A Mano Italian Kitchen & Pizzeria is in one forkful of garganelli. A savory mélange of hand-rolled, penne-like pasta with braised duck, dried cherries, kale, and pine nuts, it encapsulates everything right about this place formerly known as 62 Restaurant & Wine Bar. It’s a complex dish ($14) that comes across as effortless and endlessly comforting.
“That’s my absolute favorite thing on the menu,” says chef-owner Tony Bettencourt. “Like a lot of people, I started out as a home cook. I really enjoy the process of cooking and I do like taking the long way around to make sure a dish is especially good.”
After stints at the dearly departed UpStairs on the Square in Cambridge and Tomasso Trattoria in Southborough, Bettencourt struck out on his own in 2008 with 62 Restaurant & Wine Bar. Business was good, but Bettencourt felt it was viewed as a special-occasion restaurant. That was never his intention. So in early October, he scrapped the name and rebranded as A Mano, which means “by hand,” the menu’s guiding principle.
It was a brisk turnaround. In just one week, Bettencourt had the walls painted a rich Tuscan red, sanded down the tables, and dispensed with anything that felt too formal. So long, sheer curtains, leather-padded chairs, and canvas-covered light fixtures. The new space, including the friendly bar area, is minimal but cozy, and the waitstaff passionate about their jobs.
“The freedom of changing to A Mano allowed me to be a little more rustic in our dishes,” says Bettencourt, 42, who grew up in Peabody.
That’s particularly evident in the antipasti, but Bettencourt’s takes on staples such as meatballs and arancini are far from standard. A blend of beef, pork, and ricotta, the meatballs ($10) arrive drenched in pomodoro sauce and served in a petite skillet; you’re tempted to order two of them to make a full meal.
The arancini ($8), too, are a favorite on a first visit, the risotto fritters crisp and redolent of saffron, basil, and parmesan. Fried Brussels sprouts ($9) with pancetta, capers, and ricotta might as well be French fries: They don’t last long, either.
The Caesar salad ($9), a litmus test for an Italian restaurant, is hearty and dressed just right. Of the thin-crust pizzas, the verdure ($15) is generously loaded with butternut squash, Brussels sprouts, goat cheese, and dried cranberries. It’s as pretty as it is delicious.
The entrees tend to be heavy, which suits us fine on an especially frigid weeknight. The braised beef short ribs (at $23 slightly above Cheap Eats range) swim in a thick sauce dotted with porcini mushrooms, tomatoes, and balsamic vinegar over a bed of creamy polenta. The pork chop Milanese ($20) is slightly lighter, the pan-fried cut covered in cheese shavings and broccoli rabe. (You can skip the chicken under a brick, which doesn’t disappoint but doesn’t quite stand out.)
A Mano’s lively beverage program is strong on original cocktails such as the Dirty Rose ($10), a terrific twist on a vodka martini, but with rosemary-infused olive brine and blue cheese-stuffed olives. The extensive wine list traverses the map well beyond Italy, including several bottles from California and France.
The dessert menu also relies on comfort, with the usual suspects — tiramisu, chocolate terrine, gelato — all in excellent form. In a moat of toffee sauce and whipped cream, the warm toffee pudding ($8) delights on an almost primal level. In fact, you could say that about most of the lovingly made food at A Mano.
A MANO ITALIAN KITCHEN & PIZZERIA
62 Wharf St., Salem, 978-744-0062, www.amanoitaliankitchen.com. All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices Antipasti $7-$10. Pasta $12-$14. Entrees $19-$23. Desserts $5-$8.
Hours Tue-Sun 5-10 p.m.
Liquor Full bar
What to order Meatballs, arancini, garganelli, verdure pizza, braised beef short ribs, warm toffee pudding