The tigelle are pressed by hand over a flame in a metal contraption that chef Karen Akunowicz brought back with her from Modena, Italy, where she once lived and worked. Imprinted with a floral design, the rounds of bread look like English muffins crossed with pizzelle. The press turns out seven at a time. It isn’t really practical to offer something so time-consuming and small-batch. But the tigelle are special for Akunowicz, so here they are. That tells you much of what you need to know about Fox & the Knife, an Italian restaurant in South Boston that celebrates the special, the small-batch, the simple pleasure and the generous gesture.
The restaurant, Akunowicz’s first solo venture (spouse LJ Johnson is co-owner), was recently named a Best New Restaurant in Food & Wine magazine. The website Eater also chose it as one of its best new restaurants in America. Far be it from me to disagree. Fox & the Knife is a charmer.
“Local talent makes good” is always a happy story. But we all knew Akunowicz had made good already. Boston watched her come up, through the kitchens of Ten Tables, Via Matta, Oleana, and Myers + Chang, where she won a James Beard award. We’ve been eating her food for years. That’s just what we’re going to keep on doing, I’d imagine. The Fox & the Knife space hasn’t been this busy since it was Whitey Bulger hangout Triple O’s Lounge.
Now it’s a restaurant that emanates good vibes, run by a queer woman with bright pink hair and her mostly female staff: executive sous chef Molly Dwyer, sous chef Tessa Bristol, pastry chef Britt Lee, general manager Alexandra Hayden, assistant GM Lydia Shilland. Whitey, bye. There’s a bar area in the front and a dining room in the back, and in the middle of it all is a very open kitchen: You’re practically in it if you’re sitting at the surrounding counter, eye-level with the food being prepared. There’s a more-porous border between staff and customers here than in many restaurants, which makes sense for a place that centers the personal touch. (I was spotted on several occasions.) On one wall, above shelves filled with wine, is a neon sign. “Stay Foxy,” it reads in pink script, an affirmation as well as an invitation to return.
After leaving Myers + Chang, Akunowicz surprised with the announcement that she would focus on Italian food, not the Asian flavors she was known for. It made sense to differentiate herself. But also, it’s now clear, a big part of her heart is in Italy. In Modena, she learned to make pasta and cooked at a little enoteca. That experience shows, both in spirit and in practice. If there is one reason to come to Fox & the Knife, it is the house-made pasta. Maybe it’s the South Boston air. Maybe it’s a delicate touch. Maybe it’s that it’s made fresh every day. Strands of tagliatelle are so light and lovely, twined together with a wild-boar Bolognese that introduces just an edge of funk. It’s part earthy, part ethereal. Campanelle, little cones with frilled edges, have a bouncier texture. They are tinted spring green with pistachio pesto, sprinkled with bright mint and tangy feta.
Cacio e pepe — “cheese and pepper” — is a dish that appears on many restaurant menus these days. Fox & the Knife calls it pepe e cacio and upends it gently, using goat butter and pink peppercorns, for a dish of thin spaghetti coated in silky sauce scented with Pecorino Sardo, a sheep’s milk cheese. A mouthful offers comfort, then the burr of pepper in the back of the throat. Mafaldine, ribbons with crimped edges and just the right heft, are made with toasted farro flour and tossed with mushrooms and truffle butter, layer upon layer of flavor.
And then there’s the bread. The tigelle are simple and subtle. The focaccia is not. The crusty golden rounds are pressed with rosemary, rivulets of olive oil traversing their surface. They get sliced through the middle and filled with Taleggio, then heated into what is basically a melty, stretchy, decadent Italian grilled cheese. Which one you gravitate toward might be some kind of personality test.
One diner declares the grilled broccoli Caesar the best salad ever. With its charred florets and crisp, garlicky croutons, it could be a contender. The dressing is what brings it together and makes it so good, creamy with a bold smack of fish flavor that reverberates but doesn’t overwhelm. It’s made with colatura, the Italian fish sauce, instead of anchovy fillets. White miso is in there, too, bumping up the umami. One night fennel panzanella with pomegranate and mint is a highlight of the meal; another it isn’t as good, the dressing too tart and the bread dry. But vegetable dishes are generally very strong here.
Secondi are well prepared if not as compelling as the rest of the menu. There’s chicken under a brick, pressed flat, tattooed with sumac, served with escarole and rosemary brown butter. Lamb is braised with harissa, then the tender meat is set upon a spread of carrot polenta that catches the jus. Mint gremolata with ginger brightens things up.
Fox & the Knife focuses in on aperitivo, the Italian tradition of winding down with friends over drinks and snacks at the end of the day. It sometimes feels as if the restaurant exists to encapsulate this moment, its pure niceness, its ritual. Like maybe Akunowicz just wanted to sit down with all of us to drink a spritz over olives and potato chips, and the rest of it followed. Fox & the Knife has Aperol and a handful of vermouths on offer, plus beer and a list of Italian wine. At the end of the meal, there’s an amaro cart a staffer will wheel over to your table, stocked with an array of digestion-enhancing potions. The bar makes smart use of a beer, wine, and cordials license, from a refreshing tarragon gimlet with citrus vodka to the vermouth-centric Negroni Bianco, a satisfyingly briny stand-in for the martini, complete with blue cheese-stuffed olives. Fried chickpeas are the perfect bar snack, salty, spicy, and crunchy; there’s also house-made ricotta, rich as the inside of burrata, served with grilled bread.
Fox & the Knife has three real flaws: The food is regularly oversalted, with two or three dishes each meal (the pepe e cacio one night, the campanelle another, the chicken twice) verging on the edge of what you’d want to eat. There are two simple desserts, which feels just right, but both could use some tinkering. A chocolate and olive oil cake is dry one night; the panna cotta has an industrial bounce instead of a sexy wobble. There are, however, some really nice little shortbread cookies that come with the check. And last, the restaurant can be very loud.
In part, that is simply because it’s very busy. National attention is a bonus, but it’s this neighborhood that really needed the place, and it’s this neighborhood that will keep turning out to eat focaccia stuffed with stretchy Taleggio and drink Lambrusco late into the night. There’s energy in this room, and it is a pleasure to be here.
FOX & THE KNIFE
★ ★ ★ ½
28 West Broadway, South Boston, 617-766-8630, www.foxandtheknife.com. All major credit cards accepted. Steps at the entrance and bathroom.
Prices Bar snacks and bread $1-$12. Antipasti $7-$14. Primi $19-$25. Secondi $25-$39. Desserts $8.
Hours Dinner Sun-Thu 5:30-10 p.m., Fri-Sat 5:30-11 p.m. Aperitivo daily 4-5:30 p.m.
Noise level Very loud (87 decibels).
What to order House-made ricotta, fried chickpeas, focaccia, broccoli alla griglia “Caesar,” all of the pasta.
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