So there's this little place in Eastie you might have heard about, where the pastas are fresh and flavorful and perfectly pliant; where the sauces are complex and fragrant and slow-simmered; where the chops and steaks rival the best that any big manly meat palace in the city has to offer.
And remarkably, nearly everything at Rino's Place is as good as advertised — the kind of food that captures everything about real Southern Italian cuisine that the nostalgia-soaked red sauce joints of our childhoods never really could.
It's just a shame you can't eat here.
The tiny restaurant has room for maybe three dozen seats in a dining room about the size of a train car. There are no reservations for parties smaller than six; wait times even on weekdays would make a cable installer blush. And first you've got to get here, driving and parking in Eastie being perilous and impossible, respectively. The nearest T stop is on the Blue Line about half a mile away.
And then there's the Fieri factor. Rino's was plenty popular even before wonder-awful TV chef/bloated punk-pop hedgehog person Guy Fieri brought his show "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives" in for a visit a few years ago. Once the episode aired, Rino's was overrun faster than an unfortified compound on "The Walking Dead." Since "Triple-D" airs on what seems to be a nonstop loop on the Food Network, Rino's has been annexed permanently into the city limits of Flavor Town.
Factor in proximity to the airport, and Rino's is the first and last stop for more than a few tourists. The resultant chaos can turn a fun night out into a raging, three-alarm dumpster Fieri.
A recent weekend visit began around 5 p.m., when a host conceded under some duress that 15 groups in front of us meant a couple of hours of waiting. As they always do here, the host recommended whiling away the hours at Kelley Square Pub, a few blocks away, and promised to call when a table was ready.
A word about the de facto waiting room that is Kelley's: It is not without its charms, so long as your tastes encompass signed photos of B- and C-list professional wrestlers, perilously strong mixed drinks served in oversize tumblers, and Keno. The bartenders are adept at picking out which poor souls were kicked over from Rino's to wait, though it's unclear why this information is useful unless the restaurant is claiming some sort of finder's fee.
But we'd planned for a wait. Around 7 p.m. we called to check in. Now there were only seven groups ahead of us, but somehow the wait had grown to three hours. Not three total hours — three more hours. When the phone finally rang, I was at home with a whiskey in my hand. It was 9:45. My table would be ready in about 5 minutes.
Quite simply, no restaurant is that good.
But Rino's is closer than it has any right to be. When you finally get in after a long wait, or with a big party and a reservation — like Governor Charlie Baker and a cadre of local Democrats did not long ago, leading to more than a few "Republican in name only" jokes — all the resentment disappears the moment the appetizers show up.
House-made wild boar sausage arrives on a bed of slightly crunchy, charred, oil-slickened broccoli rabe that's at least as savory and satisfying as the grilled meat. Grilled octopus knows the same magic trick: The thick, meaty tentacle is expertly cooked, but give me that bed of slightly chewy, garlicky beans underneath it. Scallops are drenched in a bright yellow limoncello sauce that is mild enough to accentuate the flavor of the tender shellfish.
Every restaurant with a fryer and 3 inches of fat serves breaded calamari these days, but the rendition at Rino's is everything it's supposed to be: crisp, then chewy, with bursts of banana pepper tossed in to cut the fatty richness.
Pasta dishes are largely what earned chef Anthony DiCenso — who took over Rino's after his parents retired — his renown, and servers rattle off a long list of the varieties that are made fresh in house. They arrive piled on plates the size of hubcaps, in portions large enough to eat for three days.
Linguine, often little more than a vehicle by which to convey meaty Bolognese from plate to mouth, is somehow the star of the show despite a rich sauce studded with clods of pork, veal, and beef. And then there's the lobster ravioli, blessed by Saint Guy himself, whose visage on the wall long ago replaced the poster for a movie that shot a scene here.
It's easy to mock Fieri, who seems to have made some really shaky personal branding choices at exactly the wrong cultural moment, but I don't know . . . he seems nice? And he's dead right about the lobster ravioli at Rino's. It is a perfect dish: Eight monster ravioli, each stuffed with a generous dollop of cheese and lobster filling and drenched in brandy tomato cream sauce that's both tangy and rich.
A veal porterhouse on the specials menu — typically more extensive than the standard menu and built around meat and produce that DiCenso has fresh on hand — puts many big-name, leather-bound steakhouses in the fancy part of town to shame. Nearly 2 inches thick, drizzled with a thin but powerful mushroom brandy sauce and cooked consistently medium-rare right to the bone, it's decadent and elegant all at once.
And a slick, sticky heap of ossobuco on a bed of risotto — which somehow stays al dente despite the steaming sauce on top of it — captures and concentrates the flavor of the veal and imbues it with aromatics from a good long braise.
The plainest dishes suffer somewhat for their size. Joey Chestnut could not comfortably eat half an order of pasta al forno, draped in a sheet of cheese as thick as a comic book, and he'd be bored before he found the bottom of the bowl. Gnocchi arrives uncharacteristically overcooked, a minute or two past the point at which it would offer any resistance.
Parmigiana — chicken, veal, or eggplant — is a splendid example of the most red sauce of red sauce dishes, but it doesn't reheat particularly well, and it's not clear what you might do with the 2 pounds of food that are left once you're sweating gravy at a cramped table near the kitchen. Waiting three hours to get in and finding yourself uncomfortably full after 20 minutes is a feeling familiar to any home cook who's ever attempted anything a little too complicated.
Further defiling what ought to be a religious experience after all that trouble to get in: One big party can turn the whole place into whichever circle of Dante's hell involved incessant shrieking. One night, the cacophony is so severe that a perfectly normal human female must cup hand to mouth and, inches from a waiter's ear, re-shout the most straightforward of requests: "SPOON!"
Considering many of them have spent years enduring the nonstop abuse that is inherent in any too-popular-for-its-own-good restaurant, the waitstaff is heroically well adjusted. They fill the wine glasses to the brim, even if the list is mostly a perfunctory selection and a handful of decent options by the glass, and there's no full bar. They whisper conspiratorially (if inaudibly) about the screaming jerks at the next table.
But if you hit the timing just right — if you tip back the last dregs of your giant vodka tonic at Kelley Square as the phone rings and you race over — you'll have conquered Flavor Town. You'll be sweating and partially deaf. Your drive home will be the subject of the next Mad Max movie. And you'll be happy.
258 Saratoga St., East Boston, 617-567-7412, www.rinosplace.com. All major credit cards accepted. No wheelchair access.
Prices Appetizers $6-$20. Entrees $17-$35.
Hours Mon 4-9 p.m., Tue-Thu 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Fri-Sat 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Noise level Anywhere from reasonable to active construction site
What to order Calamari fritti, grilled octopus, house-made pastas, lobster ravioli, pollo parmigiana, veal porterhouse, ossobuco