It’s hard to imagine anybody in Greater Boston having as tough an act to follow as Benedetto, the endearing new Italian restaurant now ensconced at the Charles Hotel in Harvard Square. To virtually anybody who’s visited Cambridge in the last 20 years, the long, warm dining room above Bennett Street is called “Rialto.”
Actually, OK, maybe Mayor Marty Walsh knows what that feels like. And probably Jimmy Garoppolo will at some point, when Tom Brady finally turns back into a pumpkin. Oh jeez, who’s replacing Big Papi at DH?
You know what — let’s start over.
Chef-owner Michael Pagliarini and the team behind Giulia, his well-liked Italian spot a few blocks up Massachusetts Avenue, opened Benedetto in November. As at Giulia, a long, white oak pasta table serves as a sort of bridge between the kitchen and dining room, where Pagliarini rolls out house-made pastas during the day. During dinner, staff slice warm, fresh focaccia — the first inkling that pastry chef Renae Connolly’s bread and dessert program might steal the whole show.
In redesigning the familiar space, Pagliarini said in an e-mail, he and architect Paul Bentel “drew inspiration from the rural sophistication of Umbria,” where Pagliarini’s family is from. It works: soft, warm colors and lighting, a wall of wine bottles, convivial chatter that never rises to cacophonous. It’s upscale, but stops short of formal.
And it’s a pretty good spot for people-watching.
On a recent Thursday, Henry Louis Gates finishes dinner and walks past with a big group. Across the Charles Hotel lobby at Henrietta’s Table, former New York Times editor Jill Abramson is chatting with the president of NBC News and several other journalebrities. Out in the hall, Cornel West is sharing a laugh with somebody.
If catching a glimpse of that kind of nerd-celeb is your thing, it would be hard to do better than this.
Also, get a better thing.
Whether or not you have a few honorary degrees and an endowed chair, dinner at Benedetto begins with “sfizi” — small bites, two pieces to a plate, designed to whet your appetite.
The best of these serve as perfect opening acts, offering a mouthful of soppressata and white bean bruschetta, or deeply savory, faintly vinegary smoked trout atop grilled bread with enough structural integrity to make the journey from plate to face, but soft enough that you can bite through it without the whole thing falling apart.
Most of these are pleasant enough to make up for the fact that the lesser sfizi sfeel sfuspiciously like an attempt to monetize an amuse-bouche. (Such is the case with a fairly straightforward gougere — a cheesy cream puff, more or less — that was no longer on the menu recently.)
Antipasti options include a beautiful warm salad of celery root and roasted pear, and spicy grilled octopus — well prepared and only faintly spicy, but octopi are now so omnipresent that they’re starting to run together at this point. And the prosciutto di parma platter, with glossy, salty slices of perfect ham, is evidence of Pagliarini's commitment to sourcing high-quality Italian ingredients.
Pasta preparations show off the sheets and noodles that emerge from the table, rather than burying them in rich sauces. Tortelloni stuffed with braised duck and studded with cherries and broccoli rabe may be Benedetto's signature dish, elegantly layering sweet, savory, and bitter flavors with just enough textural variation. Assemble everything in one bite, and you’ll suddenly see just what Pagliarini is after.
Strozzapreti, sliced and rolled into thick, slightly irregular ropes, are lightly coated in a simple, bright tomato sauce and then blasted with a generous handful of intensely crispy pork belly. The challenge here is not wolfing down all the pork first, leaving you to pick at a plain bowl of perfectly good pasta that used to be amazing.
Tagliatelle bolognese takes the saucing restraint maybe a hair too far. I don’t care how refined your cooking is, when you’re ladling rich, meaty sauce — short rib, pancetta, chicken livers — onto fresh pasta, you need to channel an Italian grandmother. Linguine alle vongole is fresh and bright with herbs and lemon despite being just a shade overseasoned.
Portions are reasonable, and two semi-ambitious eaters could probably put away two pastas and something from the mostly meat-focused secondi menu, such as the tender bone-in skate wing, which offers tendrils of rich fish to sop up a bright, simple salmoriglio — Italy’s answer to chimichurri. But to take down the umami-intensive rib eye, which looks to be at least 16 ounces and arrives spot-on medium rare, swimming in a rich, juicy mushroom sugo, you’ll need reinforcements.
You can safely skip the veal and pork sausage with lentils, inoffensive but unremarkable and not particularly attractive to look at, and a polenta dish, topped with a duck egg, that devolves almost immediately into its disparate parts and needs to take a lesson in keeping its act together from the sfizi.
Three longtime Rialto servers and some support staff stayed on, but this is mostly a new team, Pagliarini said. And there are kinks. On a busy Saturday night, someone from the bar is pressed into duty as our server, the focaccia never materializes, and the wait between courses becomes uncomfortably long. If I had to wait tables while ducking back behind the bar to painstakingly mix one of Benedetto's five- or six-ingredient signature cocktails or paw through an impressive collection of amari, I’d probably lose track of time too.
On another night, a less-distracted server is perfectly attentive and warm, sharing smart observations about by-the-glass wines (heavily Italian, naturally) and pacing a multicourse meal perfectly. This is the best way to enjoy Benedetto's breadth: Trading plates around the table, enlisting the help of a server, and having larger dishes sliced up in the kitchen.
The downside to this approach is that you might have a hard time mustering the caloric courage required to tackle desserts. That would be a shame, because Connolly, formerly of Café ArtScience and Pagliarini's first hire here, is blowing the doors off the place.
Connolly eschews the unsatisfying, eye-rolling nonsense that has found its way onto the dessert menus at so many otherwise exciting restaurants.
Velvety caramel, spiked with nardini amaro and suspended in a frozen cylinder, spills out like an oil slick over dense, moist carrot cake and an oddball little village of oranges and foam and dollops of chocolate cream. Everything surrounding a bombolino is so good that the warm, crusty doughnut that gives the dish its name isn’t even the main attraction; that would be the apple sorbetto, which tastes like an entire apple pie a la mode reduced to its essence. And I hope Jill Abramson didn’t see me going at the cherry port reduction surrounding the caramel milk chocolate mousse with my fingers.
It’s a good thing there isn’t a course after dessert. That would be a really tough act to follow.
Charles Hotel, 1 Bennett St., Harvard Square, Cambridge, 617-661-5050, www.benedettocambridge.com. All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices Sfizi $6-$12. Antipasti $15-$45. Pasta $21-$55. Secondi $23-$48. Dessert $10-$14
Hours Sun-Thu 5-10 p.m., Fri-Sat 5-11 p.m.
Noise level Buoyant but not boisterous
What to order Soppressata and white bean bruschetta, warm celery root and pear salad, tagliatelle bolognese, braised duck leg tortelloni, bone-in skate wing, bone-in rib eye, frozen walnut and nardini caramel (or any dessert that strikes your fancy).