Consider how wrong this could go.
You’re on a grand avenue in one of Boston’s flushest enclaves, eating in a restaurant styled after a working man’s bacaro — the hideaway bars that pepper the alleys of Venice — waiting for a stream of cicchetti (bite-size Venetian tapas) as conceived by two New England natives, surrounded by beautiful people in a cloud of vintage ’90s hip-hop.
Yes, prepare to cut into your canonical vitello tonnato to the pulse of Del the Funky Homosapien.
Or: Could someone please hurl me off this postmodern train before it derails?
I mean, shouldn’t our little Disney trip into an underrepresented regional cuisine and one of the South End’s latest hot spots — SRV, shorthand for the Most Serene Republic of Venice, emphasis on Serenissima, that city’s nickname since year 697 — come stocked with Carnevale masks, Paolo Conte crooning, and smartly turned-out folks in Ferragamo?
When it comes to eating, when it comes to so much, authenticity ranks supreme. Maybe you could say more than ever — call it a symptom of the tornado of virtual reality we increasingly find our (lonely) selves trembling at the center of.
But it turns out that stream of retro hip-hop can square quite smoothly with a menu of reinterpreted Italian classics. It doesn’t hurt that the mash-up comes yoked to a deep bench of waiters, back waiters, hosts, bartenders, and managers, all of whom circulate in the large, stylish space with an impressive combination of knowledgeability, pleasantness, ease. They seem perfectly at home in this world of mixed metaphors.
It’s a move that often backfires: Can we plunder disparate chunks of cultural excellence from across time and space, jam them together, and land on an exciting new/old thing?
In the case of SRV and the chef-restaurateurs behind it — Kevin O’Donnell and Michael Lombardi, both with notable cooking credentials, including stints in New York and Italy — the answer is a resounding yes.
Take the two long counters that stand elbow-high near the bar. It would be easy and profitable to line those counters with stools. Yet their absence — along with the rest of SRV’s decor, its prices, and its menu — is true to the essence of a real Venetian bacaro. You see it, and think: I’d like to live in a city where I can stop by a happening spot like this every day for a fast drink and bite and light damage to my wallet. (Cicchetti run from $2 to $4, and a very fine Aperol Spritz or Bicicletta, made of Campari, white wine, and vermouth, costs a reasonable $10.)
Of course, a place like this amounts to nothing more than a decent watering hole if the food isn’t good. Fortunately, much of SRV’s menu is more than good, displaying regular flashes of creativity, craft, and, most pleasurably, surprise.
All of the high points of the cicchetti menu, nine items in total, amount to variations on subverted expectation. The nervetti fritti — fried nerve, that’s correct — would hardly seem like a festive start to your night. But that’s precisely what it is, in the form of cirrus clouds of luscious crunch bitten by a rain of Parmesan and black pepper.
Polpette, or pork and beef meatballs, defy another expectation. How many meatballs have you eaten in your life? Probably too many. Yet try them at SRV and you’re likely to order them again (and again), as I found myself helplessly doing. The flavorful blend of meat, amped with Pecorino Romano, suffuses what would otherwise be an unassuming tomato sauce. You call for bread to mop it up.
The baby octopus, for which we had high hopes, arrived dried out, unremarkable. A glug of olive oil might have staunched the damage. At the same time, if the breaded-and-fried mozzarella in carrozza (“in a carriage”) is workman-like solid, the shavings of bonito on top goose this wallflower.
The main menu is divided into two parts, piatti (plates) and grani (grains). It’s hard to go wrong with the piatti. Though I winced when a friend insisted on ordering the fegato alla Veneziana, or calf’s liver, it turned out to be among my favorites. The liver tastes mineral, sweet, and supple, bedded amid a fantastic array of baby onions — pickled, fried, marinated, raw.
Surprisingly, that vitello tonnato has both the spry appearance and taste of spring. The thin-sliced veal, napped with “tuna sauce” — more like a pungent aioli — is given lovely snap and variety by celery heart, puntarelle (a chicory), olives. Seasonality is deployed through much of SRV’s menu, an awareness that makes the nostalgic project of Venice-in-Boston feel more like a lively reconfiguring of Boston-in-June.
And then there’s the melancholic thump of Notorious B.I.G.’s “Party and [Expletive],” which enters the mix as a strangely perfect lubricant. The soundtrack at SRV — never too loud, never just wallpaper — combined with the sustaining service, creates a vortex that invites you to settle back and let the night unfold as it will.
The carne crudo registers as one more high-pleasure shock to the system. Really, another version of beef tartare? You figure it for a one-biter. But then, instead of raw egg, the ground meat is made decadently plush with sunchoke. The balance of salt, spice, fat hits just right. A rough grind of Taza chocolate and pine nuts layers in complexity and texture.
The radish salad suffers from a punishing hand with salt, as do the fried onions with the calf’s liver, but that dish’s otherwise perfect execution makes it easy to overlook. Not here, not when the portion of arugula is measly, and if there are mashed anchovies, as indicated on the menu, they’ve fled town. Far more representative of SRV’s run of quality is the roasted asparagus with Jonah crab, ricotta, and a spritely orange vinaigrette, suggesting those poor radishes are an aberration.
The other half of the main menu, grani, though stocked with winners, offers up one scathing disappointment. The squid ink risotto, while a gorgeous sight, tastes listless. Up front, there’s a ringing assertion of lemon, but beneath there’s no robust fish stock to bring you back down into the ocean.
Thank heaven, then, for the clam risotto. Ocean is everywhere, the lemon lends just enough tang, the clams and mussels supply toothsomeness, and fennel fronds point to looming summer.
Same goes for every single pasta. Most spectacularly, the ricotta gnudi with morels, peas, and chile. It once again crushes the idea that you need meat or fish to create tremendous flavor.
And though the meat eaters at our table relish the spaghetti with shrimp and maltagliati with lamb sausage, two other vegetarian pastas — beet-stuffed casunziei (ravioli) and tajarin (thin tagliatelle) with asparagus and summer truffles — more than hold their own.
When it comes to dessert, there’s one memorable offering. Both the biscotti and the tiramisu are oddly flat, rigorously undersweetened. But the affogato? It’s a scoop of hazelnut gelato, coated in gianduja, bathed in stinging espresso, and it makes good on the opening promise of SRV. That wave of serenity you’ve been riding? It takes you right to the end.
569 Columbus Ave., South End, Boston, 617-536-9500, www.srvboston.com. All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices Cicchetti (tapas) $2-$10. Piatti (plates) $8-$16. Grani (grains) $15-$22. Dolci (desserts) $8-$15.
Hours Dinner daily 5-11 p.m. Cicchetti until midnight. Bar until 1 a.m.
Noise level A stream of mellow hip-hop that’s never too loud, never just wallpaper
What to order Nervetti fritti, mozzarella in carrozza, polpette, roasted asparagus, fegato alla Veneziana, ricotta gnudi, clam risotto, affogato
Ted Weesner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.