Play a little game with me.
It's a guessing game, and it involves a trip to East Milton Square. Once you're there, stand in front of Novara, an Italian restaurant that opened in January, and study the facade. Then step inside and look around.
To win, guess correctly what this building used to be.
Take in the small ticket window in the entryway, the upward-sloping ramp to the cavernous main dining room with its 23-foot ceiling, the giant projection screen above the open kitchen. There are more obvious hints, too, like the red velvet rope barriers on the sidewalk and the image of a strip of film on the front door. Stretch your imagination and you can almost inhale the fragrance of buttered popcorn.
Long-time Bostonians may remember this space as the former Milton Cinema, a single-screen movie theater of the type that mostly went extinct following the rise of the multiplex. This one closed about 30 years ago and has sat idle off and on ever since, until a group of investors — including Milton resident Jordan Knight of New Kids on the Block fame, which explains how the drink menu's "New Fig on the Block" bourbon cocktail got its name — gave it a vibrant new life.
Their gorgeous renovation makes Novara one of the most striking new entrants to the Boston-area restaurant market: clerestory windows, huge white Carrara marble island bar, wood-beamed smaller private dining room, lovely outdoor patio, plus all those charming design touches paying tribute to the building's history.
It's a big, airy, casual, light-drenched place that's attracting all constituencies, from families with young children at the tables, to singles and couples at the bar, to groups of all ages on the patio. Actual movies are shown on that big screen — although you can only see, not hear, them, which often doesn't matter since they're frequently silent films.
The multiple TVs around the bar can be distracting (should we watch the Red Sox or Charlie Chaplin?), but the crowd doesn't seem to mind the mildly confused vibe; they're probably still too delighted that Milton, until recently a dead zone for eating out, finally has a small but growing dining scene (pioneered by Abby Park, whose owner, Vance Welch, is also an owner of Novara).
Whether Novara's customers will keep forgiving its problematic menu is an unresolved question. Chef Tony DeRienzo, who previously worked at Ambrosia and Biba, leans toward heavy, heavily sauced dishes, which may have been welcome comfort food when Novara debuted last winter, but can be off-putting in the heat of summer.
On our first visit, nearly every item we ordered was deluged in tomato sauce — not unexpected for an Italian joint, but so excessive that we sometimes struggled to detect any taste but tomato. That included the gummy arancini, dense chicken Parmesan meatballs, overly cheesy margherita pizza, and uova al forno, oven-cooked eggs meant to be served with a runny yolk, although ours was overcooked by the residual heat of the sauce.
Spicy zucchini tuffo, pureed to mimic baba ghanoush, arrived as a tomatoey mush that worked best as a bread spread. I loved the tender chunks of meat in the wild boar ragu, but the dish was swimming in you-know-what.
Among the few items we ordered that didn't arrive in an avalanche of tomato sauce were salmon piccata, instead paired with a cream sauce that overwhelmed the fish, and bucatini, which promised black pepper butter sauce but simply tasted bland.
At the end of that meal, one of my table mates dubbed the evening "the great marinara massacre," and I vowed that my next visit would be marinara-free.
That vow was fulfilled, but finding lighter dishes remained a challenge. Pesto cream sauce swamped the rock shrimp gnocchi. Thick-cut polenta fries were gooey with mozzarella, drizzled with roasted garlic truffle aioli, and deep-fried, making them tasty but quickly filling. Mushroom pizza — portobello, shiitake, cremini — was laden with oil from a double dose of pecorino and mascarpone cheese.
A highlight: plump pulled-pork ravioli generously stuffed with meat and served — at last! — in a light sweet corn cream sauce that sang of summer harvests. This dish is a case study, though, in why nutritionists warn you can never be sure what fattening ingredients are lurking in restaurant meals: DeRienzo says he cooks his corn in duck fat to infuse it with flavor. Heart patients, beware.
Flaky cod, lightly crusted with Parmesan, forked apart beautifully and held its own with a chunky sauce of partially pureed cannellini beans braised with butter, garlic, rosemary, and cream. We also took another pass at the salmon, this time asking if the kitchen could prepare it without a cream sauce. Just garlic, oil, and lemon. The kitchen obliged, delivering a perfectly cooked fillet dredged in pulverized Arborio rice, which created a wonderfully crispy, cornmeal-like coating.
You need more of this kind of dish, Chef DeRienzo — ones that offer a respite from sauces and goo, that don't drown out the meats and pastas and vegetables they're meant to enhance, that use lighter ingredients to let subtle flavors emerge.
Don't change your burger, though. Topped with balsamic pickled onions, Fontina, smoky bacon, and tomato marmalade, it's nearly perfect, except for the soggy bun. Your steak is flavorful, if a touch tough, and comes with delicious fingerling potatoes and rosemary butter, although we question that $38 price tag.
Desserts? Mostly forgettable. Tiramisu tasted mainly like a big heap of whipped cream, and amaretto dark chocolate mousse was neither particularly dark nor did it have much of the almond flavor of amaretto. Lemon olive oil cake got the most raves, largely for its sweet, tart ribbon of lemon curd.
Speaking of lemon, some of the cocktails tasted oddly acidic, as if they'd been made with lemon juice concentrate rather than the fresh-squeezed stuff. If so, that's not a corner worth cutting; nothing in a bottle can replace fresh citrus.
Novara's patio is a dream — roomy, quiet, peaceful — but its flimsy chairs could use an upgrade. Our collective backsides kept falling off them, resulting in an anatomical condition that one of my colleagues named "butt hang." And service is sometimes lackadaisical; we often found ourselves scanning futilely for our waiter, who vanished for long stretches, was slow to deliver drinks, didn't check on us much during our meal, and forgot to place an order or two.
Still, there's something about that bright, grand dining room with its soaring ceiling, and that serene patio on a breezy night, that would tempt me back. The space is a beauty. The bar is inviting. The kitchen has shown it's capable of wielding a lighter hand. Now it's time to lay off the cream and marinara and trust those simpler, subtler flavors to shine through.
556 Adams St., Milton, 617-696-8400, www.novararestaurant.com. All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices: Appetizers $4-$15. Entrees $15-$38. Desserts $7-$8.
Hours: Daily noon to midnight.
Noise level: Moderate
What to order: Parmesan-crusted cod, pulled pork ravioli, wild boar ragu, burger, lemon olive oil cake