Somewhere in its journey through the United States, Italian cuisine became a stereotype.
When you think “Italian food,” what comes to mind? Red sauce? Chicken Parmesan? Lasagna, ravioli, spaghetti and meatballs?
In Boston’s North End, lots of menus fit that bill, one differing little from the others. But Gennario Riccio and Marisa Iocco were determined not to let their new restaurant be typecast.
They’re the owner and chef, respectively, of Scopa, which opened in May in the space previously occupied by Pomodoro (which has moved up the block to the spot that was once Volle Nolle), and they’re both established names in the neighborhood.
He’s the 26-year-old son of Gerald Riccio, a North Ender who owns Caffe Vittoria, Florentine Cafe, and Gennaro’s at 5 North Square, as well as Stanza dei Sigari cigar bar. As a kid, Gennaro worked at the family businesses, and he’s now striking out on his own.
Born in Abruzzi, Iocco has been cooking in Boston for nearly three decades, beginning at Galeria Italiana alongside Barbara Lynch. Her grand tour of the city’s kitchens includes La Bettola, South End Galleria, Bricco, Mare, and Umbria, and she’s now doing double duty as chef at Gennaro’s at 5 North Square, too.
At Scopa, Riccio knew what he didn’t want, and Iocco knew what she did.
“Why open another restaurant in the North End with chicken Parm and eggplant Parm?” says Riccio. “We just wanted to be a little different.”
Iocco puts it more bluntly: “I encouraged him to do something more courageous.”
Scopa’s food is lighter, healthier, and more modern than at many of its North End counterparts. It lays off heavy tomato sauce, cream, and oceans of cheese in favor of dishes less common in these parts: tuna tartare, pork ribs, entrees prepared using French techniques, not Italian. Sometimes the results are a delight, other times they go awry.
The best seats in the house are indisputably the four spots at the window overlooking Hanover Street. These are the thrones of the restaurant, with unparalleled people-watching.
Through the open windows, marvel at the endless line of customers filing into Mike’s Pastry and emerging with little white string-tied boxes filled with cannoli and other sweets. In front of Mike’s, leather-clad motorcyclists park in their usual curbside positions, like sentries keeping order. To your right, another queue wraps around the block, this one populated by people clamoring for a coveted table next door at tiny Daily Catch.
At Scopa’s window ledge, dinner comes with built-in entertainment, gratis. And, in a charming touch, the wait staff exits the restaurant to serve window customers, handing them their food from the sidewalk.
Scopa is small — only 22 seats. It’s just shy of cramped, but manages to be pleasantly cozy, although the minuscule bathroom feels like an airplane lavatory. One dining room wall is exposed brick with shelves of wine. Another is a mirror, creating the illusion of more space than there is. An itty-bitty open kitchen sits behind a white Carrara marble counter. When the heat lamps occasionally flip on, diners are briefly bathed in eerie orange light.
On our first visit, dinner begins with great promise: thin strips of warm, crusty bread on a narrow cutting board with three little bowls of olive oil, one with grated Parmesan, one with crushed red pepper, one straight up.
Red and gold beets rest in a pool of vividly green liquid: basil jus, a gorgeous herbal broth. Tuna tartare with sesame dressing and slivers of mango is wonderful — fresh, flavorful, and seared on one side. Pan-roasted salmon is simple and well prepared. Our only quibble is its bed of strawberry risotto; the tangy fruit seems out of place amid the hot, silky rice.
Light, airy cod tempura is basically classy fish ’n’ chips. Each puffy piece can be eaten in two bites, delicious with or without accompanying eggplant caponata. Its flaw is oversalting, which makes it especially odd that on our second visit numerous dishes seem to lack salt entirely, from bland limoncini fritters to overcooked scallops to margherita pizza.
Spaghetti carbonara also needs the salt shaker, although we like its crunchy crumbled pancetta, and a poached egg on top oozes rich yolk into the pasta, creating velvety texture. Unusually long gnocchi, shaped like skinny fingerling potatoes, arrive in tasty tomato-bell pepper sauce, but would also benefit from salt.
Pappardelle Bolognese is perfect, a classic beef ragu. Caprese salad has nice, creamy buffalo mozzarella, but the drab tomatoes taste straight from a winter hothouse. The evening’s biggest disappointment is mojito shrimp lollipops. The menu promises the flavors of lime, cognac, mint, and shallots, but what arrives is utterly flavorless, the rubbery skewered shrimp oddly bloated.
We were so puzzled by the inconsistency of our second dinner — from ethereal Bolognese to shrimp that, in the words of one of my tablemates, “is not to be forgiven” — that we returned for a third visit to try to reconcile the unevenness. We’re glad we did, because the menu had changed substantially, summer ingredients swapped out for autumn ones.
Bad news: The excellent tuna tartare isn’t on the fall menu. Good news: Iocco pledges it will be a frequent special. More bad news: The shrimp was still terrible. Mixed news: Quality was again uneven.
Meaty, tender pork baby back ribs are sensational. Chicken alla Romana is masterfully moist, an appetizer of artichokes and roasted butternut squash satisfyingly savory. Those same ingredients are repurposed in a rigatoni entree, but taste duller with pasta than when standing on their own. Broccoli rabe pizza with spicy sausage and pecorino is a touch bitter from the greens, but Scopa’s browned, bubbly pizza crust — made with the same dough it uses for its bread — is top-notch.
As for the cod en papillote — catastrophe. Encased in parchment paper, it makes for a dramatic presentation, steam billowing as it’s unwrapped. But inside is a tasteless, waterlogged hunk of fish swimming in soupy tomatoes.
Officially, the restaurant has no dessert, but it occasionally offers one as a special. That happened on our third visit: amaretto cheesecake. What arrived was more like panna cotta, lacking the richness of cheesecake. Iocco explained later that she doesn’t use a traditional recipe (no cream cheese, for example), “but I call it cheesecake because it is cheesecake,” she said, noting that her version contains ricotta and mascarpone. Technically, she’s right!
Scopa is unpredictable. Sometimes it hits home runs; sometimes it strikes out. But it doesn’t simply play it safe.
319 Hanover St., North End, Boston, 857-317-2871, www.scopaboston.com
All major credit cards accepted. Not wheelchair accessible: one step up.
Prices Appetizers $10-16. Entrees $17-$23.
Hours Daily 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
Noise level Medium.
What to order Pork baby back ribs, artichokes and butternut squash appetizer, pappardelle Bolognese, chicken alla Romana, broccoli rabe pizza