He’s not here, but he’s here.
You could almost swear you saw the sole of an orange Croc disappear around the corner, a hearty laugh echoing in your ears. Mario Batali’s spirit is everywhere at Terra, the restaurant on the third floor of Eataly, the culinary megastore in which the high-profile chef is a partner.
It is present in the loud music, the loud room, the rock ’n’ roll looseness that stands in contrast to the pop quiz-ready service. There is something infectious and generous about the place. There is also something frankly, refreshingly commercial: The people behind Eataly are passionate about Italian cuisine. They’ve found a successful formula for turning that into profit. Salute!
Put Terra in a different setting and it would feel like an entirely different restaurant. Its energy is fueled by a potent Negroni of celebrity, concept, and location in equal measure. It is one of the few places in town where getting a midweek, midsummer reservation can require a bit of forethought.
But get one. The gatekeepers at the bottom of the stairs are fickle. Sometimes they wave you up with barely a glance. Sometimes they shoo you away firmly: Not even a seat at the bar for you tonight. At the top of the stairs is an inevitable bottleneck. Wires get crossed. No, you can’t sit at the chef’s counter without a reservation. Yes, you can sit at the counter across from the bar. Or can you? Depends on the night.
So this part of the operation could use a little fine-tuning. Once you’re seated, it no longer matters. You are in one of Boston’s best-looking new dining rooms, filled with sweeping skylights and lush greenery, and all is abuzz and aflame. Behind the chef’s counter is a wood fire, over which staffers char skewered morsels and substantial chops — grilling as ringside sport. Behind a glass wall are towering wine barrels, pressed into service for Terra’s intriguing oak-aged beer program. It’s like attending a high-achieving kegger inside a very elegant potting shed.
When it comes to eating local, Eataly finds the middle way. The store is a showcase for Italian products, but it also sources from farms and providers in the area. That’s Terra’s approach when it comes to staffing, too. The chef de cuisine is Dan Bazzinotti, whom you may remember from Cambridge’s BISq. That tiny wine bar made much of Bazzinotti’s charcuterie; here it appears on the Gran Tagliere, a board loaded up with prosciutto, salami, pate, cheeses, olives, and more, almost too much of a good thing.
There is plenty to snack on at Terra: bruschette, little toasts topped with dreamy, creamy burrata, or with too-heavy gobs of lardo (cured fatback) rather than paper-thin slices. Skewers of mushrooms, pork shoulder, shrimp: all perfectly tasty. Rice croquettes crisp-golden on the outside, green with spring peas inside; grilled Island Creek oysters. Simple pleasures. The point-counterpoint of so much modern cooking — richness offset by bright notes — is here replaced by a steady savoriness.
Of course there is pasta, moderately sauced and maximally, sometimes excessively, al dente. (Terra is adamant about getting Americans to eat pasta the way Italians do; I wonder how that is going.) Meat and fish off the grill can be matched with sides, and there are large plates for sharing — a dry-aged porterhouse for two, a mixed grill that incorporates every beast in the barnyard.
Everything is live here: the beer, the fire. It feels vital, and also unpredictable. Sometimes your double-cut, cider-brined pork chop is hot-damn good, rosy and infused with smoke. Sometimes it tastes double-salted and brine-brined, arriving gray at the center. The accompanying grilled apricots are the juiciest thing on the plate. Stillman’s Farm chicken, cooked under a brick, is dry too. Grilling is just as tricky in a restaurant as it is on your back deck.
For every fine-tuned plate of golden and crimson beets, served over supple stracciatella, sprinkled with crushed pistachios and mint, there is an off-key Caprese salad with slithery roasted tomatoes, too-cold mozzarella, and flavorless pesto. Rabbit agnolotti are tender, tiny packets lovingly swathed in butter from Italian dairy whisperers Luigi Guffanti, but ricotta gnocchi are dense and gluey. A lovely, fresh spring dish of ravioli with ricotta, peas, lemon butter, and mint has given way to summer’s less-good version, with smoked corn and chanterelles and an odd roasted onion flavor reminiscent of soup mix. Rigatoni with a ragu of pork and veal reminds us that sometimes basic building blocks are enough; spaghetti with smoked tomato calls out for much more (any smoked flavor at all would be a great start).
When it comes to dessert, simplicity is all to the good — whether it’s cylinders of barely sweet walnut-bread crisps, like Melba toast but airy, wrapped around a creamy, honey-scented filling, or doughnut-esque bomboloni rolled in sugar, grilled rhubarb at their centers. (The dessert menu has since been updated.)
Some of Terra’s dishes are successful time after time: I’d be hard-pressed not to order the tender calamari in tomato broth with caper berries, olives, pine nuts, and currants, its smack of salt and sweet a direct line to Sicily. Other dishes are successful enough. What is consistent here is the energy, the ebullience. No one wears orange Crocs because they are tasteful. When we come to Terra to eat, it is the flavor of Eataly we are after.
Eataly, 800 Boylston St., Back Bay, Boston, 617-807-7300, terra.eataly.com. All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices Bruschette $4-$11. Skewers $7-$12. Small plates $11-$17. Pasta $17-$21. Entrees $23-$55. Sides $6-$9. Dessert $9.
Hours Sun-Thu 5-10 p.m., Fri-Sat 5-11 p.m.
Noise level ’80s radio hits played loud enough to make you sing along, not so loud you can’t have a conversation.
What to order Burrata bruschette, pork shoulder skewer, beets with stracciatella, rabbit agnolotti, calamari.Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.