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Dining Out

Not braggadocious. Just quietly excellent at Fat Hen.

Fat Hen’s Rhode Island swordfish.Kieran Kesner for The Boston Globe

These are braggadocious times. Drop by one of Boston’s happening new restaurants and the space is likely to be cavernous, the soundtrack thumping, the small plates hopscotching the planet. Umami, once a stealth agent, will be a focal combatant. Fish sauce, bonito flakes, bone marrow, dry-aged this or that — the death match is on to light up your mouth.

Not one piece of the experience doesn’t look to be big. Make that bigly. And hey, who doesn’t love the din? A raucous nightclub frolic? At the same time, no surprise, there remains a fierce appetite for just the opposite. Smaller places in hideaway locations featuring virtuosic fare and crackerjack service.


Answering this more modest call, Fat Hen landed in August along an unremarkable, commercial stretch of East Somerville. Yet eat once in this nouveau Italian jewelbox and that presumed modesty begins to look more like a stunning, razor-sharp counterpoint.

(An aside, but isn’t this the route to Boston’s becoming a city celebrated nationally for its restaurants? Whereby major talent surfaces not just in a city’s central squares but also its sleepier outer flanks?)

Fat Hen sits nestled at the far end of another restaurant, Daniel Bojorquez’s La Brasa, and he’s the owner of both. On warmer evenings, the doors are left swung open. Inside, the atmosphere is dusky. The food is elegant and arrives with a pedigree. When Bojorquez, who opened La Brasa in 2014, decided he wanted to fill one end of his industrial mod space with “simple” Italian fare, he asked fellow L’Espalier alum Michael Bergin to man the kitchen. After L’Espalier, Bergin spent formative time in Michelin-star Manhattan alongside Missy Robbins at A Voce and Mark Ladner at Del Posto.

A sense of rigor surges from the start, when the first dinner roll — not just any dinner roll — hits your plate. (If there’s not a second, you have stronger willpower than anyone I ate with.) And it’s there at the end, when a bowl of astringent Italian hard candies is dropped, gratis, alongside your check. You also feel it in between and throughout. The people responsible for this enterprise, you begin to realize, have thought over every last detail.


And those details begin to collect. Something memorable takes shape. That roll that delivers such round satisfaction? Taste it and you know there’s a story behind it. I checked in with Bergin to find out. Sure enough, it’s a recipe collected from his grandmother, who is married to a Sicilian. They’re wood-fired and made of semolina and olive oil.

Anchovies with white bean puree and Calabrian spices.Kieran Kesner for The Boston Globe

Another small touch: With the roll comes a scoop of excellent butter sitting in a puddle of even better olive oil. Why isn’t this done everywhere? Why are we forever doomed to choose? But the roll is also handy mop-up for antipasti, even if my favorite — anchovies with white bean puree and Calabrian spices — comes with house-made, sesame-studded wheat crackers. They’re an equal challenge to pass up.

As with just about every Fat Hen offering, the anchovies are an act of artful balance. There’s the stinging salt of the fish, the unguent earthiness of the beans, the warm blast of chile, finished with a floral spray of fennel pollen. I could’ve happily lingered over three more dishes of these anchovies along with a couple of glasses of bubbly red — La Tollara Barbera ($11) — and called it a night.


You could say for the cocktails what you could say for the desserts what you could say for another superb antipasto, flounder crudo with orange and pickled garlic. Fat Hen has a brilliant hand with tartness. The “Room With a View” — Campari with dry vermouth and citrus — may be the picture of a “pink drink,” but it’s just messing with you, pleasurably non-sweet.

The same sense of playful restraint animates Fat Hen’s autumn salad, in which kale and squash are thrown into glamorous light beneath Seckel pear, creamy burrata, and bee pollen. The veal tongue, a classic vitello tonnato, sees similar treatment, placed on a pungent sauce of oil-packed anchovies and tuna, finished with lemon, caperberries, and pickled vegetables.

The pasta lineup at Fat Hen has no holes. The tortellini brodo pits sweetly earthen butternut squash against capon consomme, which has the smokiness of a single-malt. It is no surprise to hear from Bergin that the broth requires five days of cooking. The spaghetti with Jonah crab, green tomato, and bacon tastes like what it sounds: ocean and earth somehow loaded up on the back of a scrumptious pig.

Corzetti layered with cloumage cheese in mushroom stock.Kieran Kesner for The Boston Globe

I almost failed to order what would turn out to be the dish I most loved at Fat Hen. The corzetti, half dollar-size cut-outs of pasta, are layered with cloumage cheese in mushroom stock. The stock, Bergin says, requires cases of mushrooms, a meat grinder, overnight pressing, and hours of reduction at a simmer — all for a single component of a single dish. It’s amazing how a few innocuous words, a modest line on a menu, are asked to speak for so much work and devotion.


Among the main courses, the swordfish is one more example of Bergin’s crafty hand. Variety is never allowed to tip over into mishmash. The fish comes dusted with dehydrated orange, creating tension amid fennel, clams, potatoes. The chicken mattone delivers a small disappointment. Terrifically tender, yes, but if a brick is involved, please give us crackling skin and some dark meat.

Fat Hen’s $45 four-course degustazione — a course from each category, your choice — has to be one of the best deals in town. Cocktails, all $10, are superior. At every turn you encounter acts of generosity. The service — longtime veterans of Rialto and L’Espalier run the room — makes for an effort-free night, with deep knowledge on call. And frankly, what a welcome breather from the unseasoned, if enthusiastic, staff at too many Boston restaurants.

For dessert, the affogato with caramel gelato and the plum crostata with olive oil gelato could not be better. Two more indications of quiet, granular expertise. Also the furthest thing from braggadocious.


126 Broadway, Somerville, 617-764-1612. All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.

Prices Antipasti $7-$14. Pasta $14-$18. Entrees $21-$28. Four-course degustazione $45.

Hours Wed-Thu 6-10 p.m. Fri-Sun 5-10 p.m.

Noise level Low-key buzz

What to order Autumn salad, vitello tonnato, anchovies, flounder crudo, tortellini brodo, spaghetti with crab, corzetti with mushroom, Rhode Island swordfish, plum crostata, affogato


Ted Weesner can be reached at tedweesner@gmail.com.