Where to: Orfano, the latest restaurant from Big Heart Hospitality, the group run by chef Tiffani Faison and Kelly Walsh. Orfano, serving Italian food, is in the same Fenway neighborhood as sister restaurants Fool’s Errand (fancy snacks and drinks), Sweet Cheeks (barbecue), and Tiger Mama (Southeast Asian-inspired fare).
Why: Almost a decade ago, Faison helmed the kitchen of Rocca, turning the now-defunct South End spot into one of the area’s best Italian restaurants. (I still miss it, along with Cambridge’s Benatti.) Orfano marks both her return to the cuisine (“orfano” means “orphan” in Italian) and to a slightly more formal mode of dining. The restaurant, on the ground floor of residential tower Pierce Boston, is a space of dark wood, leather and velvet banquettes in chocolate and burgundy, and golden chandeliers; the floors are covered in tile mosaic and herringbone-pattern wood. It’s plenty handsome, but there are still touches of trademark cheek: a print of Lady Gaga eating spaghetti, a sign by the bathroom sink reading “Per Favore: No Smokie. No Pokie. No Cokie. Please Hand Washie.”
The Back Story: Orfano is the first restaurant wife-wife team Faison and Walsh have opened since bringing their businesses together under the Big Heart name. The hospitality group, which emphasizes female leadership, now has about 200 employees, making it an increasingly major player in the Fenway.
What to Eat: Orfano’s motto is “sorry Nonna,” so expect more of a winky-respectful salute to tradition than reverential adherence. The menu features warmhearted takes on classics: clams Orfano with pancetta and toasted breadcrumbs; a house Caesar featuring chrysanthemum and avocado au poivre; meatballs alla Raia (named for chef Dan Raia, who has worked with Faison since the Rocca days). There’s an occasional “ ’80s night” vibe, with the appearances of a tuna martini and duck Marbella for two, a take on the classic chicken dish from “The Silver Palate Cookbook.” There is also a steakhouse-style roster of roasted meats with your choice of anchovy-caper butter or garlic brown butter, to be paired with a la carte sides (crispy potatoes, steamed and grilled yu choi).
Pasta dishes are frequently tweaked, in ways both subtle and not: Lobster bucatini comes in a rich brown-butter lobster sauce with basil and chile, deeply layered with umami. Cacio e pepe is made with stuffed tortelloni (a touch too al dente) rather than long pasta like linguine or spaghetti, and a pesto-y salsa verde shifts the flavor profile entirely. The ingredient list roams beyond Italy — salt and pepper calamari comes with crisp fennel and onion petals, plus “dim sum dippy sauce”; the monkfish piccata is made with miso; and Japanese tonkatsu is the crispy cutlet starring in a dish called “pig parmesan.” And presentation is often a key part of the dish. Nonna’s garlic bread, piquant and crisp, is served wrapped in red-and-white-checked paper inside a bag; a round of warm, hand-pulled mozzarella gets sliced in quarters tableside with ornate golden shears. Pastry chef Dee Steffen Chinn turns out tiramisu, amaretto cannoli, and ricotta cheesecake with “grandpa shortbread,” Sambuca cherry sauce, and candied fennel fronds. There’s also the “royal chocolate cake for two, kween,” a whole miniature cake served on its own stand.
What to Drink: Beverage director Brian Callahan and wine director Charlie Gaeta make a strong team. I always want Lambrusco by the glass at Italian restaurants, and that appears here. Other by-the-glass selections are ideal accompaniments for the food, from a briny carricante from Etna (try it with the lobster bucatini) to a lagrein from Alto Adige, sort of like goth pinot noir (perfect with the duck); both offerings are singular to their regions. The bottle list is heavily Italian, and anyone who gravitates toward nebbiolo should visit soon.
For cocktails, lighter cobblers, cups, and juleps (one containing five different kinds of amaro) are a good starting place. The Sorry Nonna is a winning tart-fruity combination of rose vermouth; the aperitif Contratto, a sort of alterna-Aperol; and cherry, grapefruit, and lemon, served in a silver cup over crushed ice, with a silver straw to sip from. I’ve missed seeing Sidecars on drink menus, and Orfano’s brings it back. The Sprezzatura celebrates summer with gin, clarified tomato, cucumber, the tart and old-school ingredient Lactart, and soda. There’s also a range of “old & bitter” drinks like the Negroni and the Americano. But the clear highlight is the martini cart, where your drink is made tableside, complete with a history lesson and finishing spritzes from vintage-style perfume atomizers. The olives are ridiculously good.
The Takeaway: Orfano serves food with a point of view and a sense of humor. You may come for the crazy-good lobster bucatini and swank martini cart, but you’ll return because the staff knows how to entertain and treat you well — from the sight gag of a peppermill the size of a small child to the arrival of a bottle of anisette with your espresso: You didn’t know you wanted it until it appeared.
1391 Boylston St., Fenway, Boston, 617-916-9600, www.orfanoboston.com
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.