Pammy herself is at the bar. She appears to be drinking a cocktail. She is laughing. It feels like 1,000 doves flew into my heart. Dispatches from the restaurant world are grim these days — sexual-harassment charges, labor shortages — and the whole thing can start to feel like an illusion, a screen of hospitality pulled over a Hieronymus Bosch tableau of struggling operators, lascivious chefs, and broke staffers. I can’t remember the last time I saw someone actually drinking at her own bar. But here is a restaurant owner enjoying herself.
That’s the spirit. The whole restaurant feels like that, with its potted plants and gilded ceiling-high mirrors and handsome tall windows and — best of all — the crackling fireplace you can perch beside with a Negroni while watching the snow fall. Twice now when I’ve been at Pammy’s the snow has started to fall. It’s possible it will keep happening year-round: some enchantment at work.
Wife-husband team Pam and Chris Willis opened their Cambridge trattoria in July. He is the chef, with past experience at local spots like Rialto and Clio and Nantucket’s Sfoglia, along with years in New York working in restaurants from Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Gray Kunz. The resume shows. The pair opened like they meant it: They created a beautiful room. They hired a topnotch team. He made a menu of appealing food people would want to eat on the regular. Pammy’s is a paradox — a destination neighborhood restaurant.
It specializes in everyday dishes made better. Mushroom bruschetta may not sound particularly special, but it is, a toast piled high with fluffy ricotta and a tangle of deeply woodsy wild mushrooms, crowned with slices of jalapeno. The flavors and textures pack a complex punch. Spaghetti 2.3 is pasta with red sauce — except the pasta is made at Pammy’s, and the flour it’s made from is also milled at Pammy’s, and the sauce involves the overnight marinating of tomatoes in soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, and honey, and the subsequent slow-roasting of those tomatoes to concentrate their flavor. Ragu Pizza Quick Sauce it ain’t.
Your requisite chicken dish here is a half-bird, bones removed, breast and leg meat pounded to the same size, folded together and compressed. This means there’s dark meat, white meat, and skin in every bite. A salad of endive and olives on top combines crispness, salt, and bitterness, all of which play well against a richly flavored chicken jus.
There is plenty of deceptive simplicity here: Ricotta is piped on a plate and draped with silver anchovies, artichoke hearts nestled alongside — the disparate flavors tied together by a bright and bitter underlay of citrus. In a crudo, sweet raw Nantucket bay scallops and briny uni meet their counterpoint in yuzu jam, made of both rind and syrup, mixed with grapefruit and lime. Lumache, snail-shaped pasta also made in house, are slicked with a Bolognese sauce that steadily reveals a gentle heat: It’s gochujang, the Korean chile paste. I’m stealing this idea the next time I make Bolognese; the best restaurant meals are often those that reinvigorate your own home cooking.
Pammy’s pork chop deserves its own paragraph. First it’s brined, then rubbed with peppercorns, cardamom, and fennel seed. It’s served with cream of (freshly ground) wheat, a salad of matchstick-cut radishes, and a pool of pancetta dashi, the traditional Japanese stock enriched with cured pork. It’s all smoke upon smoke upon spice upon spice, every element building upon the last. It’s darn near perfect, both in design and execution.
The menu is concise, and not everything on it is superlative. There’s an overly subdued fish dish here, an unexciting pasta there. But the food at Pammy’s is all harmonious. That’s the word that comes to mind when trying to describe Chris Willis’s cooking.
A meal starts well with a drink at the bar, managed by Moe Isaza, a familiar face from cocktail havens like West Bridge and the Baldwin Bar. The staff will make you a crimson-hued Modern Romance (it involves white rum, beets, and grenadine) or an In Other Words (with many of the elements of a Last Word, plus — surprise! — black olive). There are several riffs on the Negroni; you can order a smaller version as an aperitivo, a nice touch. Wine director Lauren Hayes, who is also the general manager, offers a list of natural wines plus knowledge passionately shared. Sound her out; talking wine with her is a pleasure.
At the end of the night, the dessert to try is cocoa nib cake with caramel budino, the nibs a biting interrogative to the lovely sticky sweetness. As you joke with the sassy servers, someone feeds another log into the fireplace. If you need another excuse to linger, a digestivo, perhaps? It’s about to snow, I just know it.
★ ★ ★
928 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-945-1761, www.pammyscambridge.com
All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices Appetizers $13-$21. Entrees $19-$32. Desserts $10-$11.
Hours Mon-Thu 5:30-10 p.m., Fri-Sat 5:30-11 p.m. (Bar until 1 a.m.)
Noise level Conversation easy.
What to order Mushroom bruschetta, bay scallop crudo, lumache, pork chop, chicken, cocoa nib cake.
★ ★ ★ ★ Extraordinary | ★ ★ ★ Excellent | ★ ★ Good | ★ Fair | (No stars) Poor