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CHEAP EATS

Large potential, scant concept

Any place with this plum Back Bay real estate will be able to fill tables without much worry -- especially on a beautiful summer night, when patios are in deep demand. In May, Croma took over the Newbury Street premises that were vacated when Davio's moved to Park Square. The menu is limited: pizzas and pastas, a few salads, some appetizers, and desserts. The restaurant is similarly spare. Inside, past a narrow entrance filled with a long bar, there is lots of room between tables, some spiffed-up brick walls, and newly trained waitstaff rushing about, some of whom are short on skill and long on enthusiasm. Croma began in Manchester, England. The story told by two of the six Boston owners, Biff Shea and Wendy Spivak, is that they met the English owner, Andrew Bullock, on a golf course in Spain a few years ago. When the couple visited Bullock and his restaurant in England, they decided to bring the concept here.

The problem is, there's so little concept. There's nothing new about garnishing pizzas with prosciutto or goat cheese or strewing them (God save us) with chicken breast and some Caesar salad. But great pizza is worth the Newbury Street parking hassle and any amount of waiting.

One splendid evening, a member of our party arrived an hour ahead, put our name in for a patio table, and sipped Prosecco at the bar, so we could get seats outside. The parade of people on the street is always grand, and we were having a good time even before the food arrived. We ordered arugula and shavings of Parmesan ($5.95), baked mushrooms ($6.75), shrimp Caesar ($11.95), eggplant Parmesan ($9.75), and a Margherita pizza ($8.25).

Nothing was exciting. Even though the arugula seems to look and taste better this year than it has in ages, this arugula salad had little flavor. The Parmesan lacked its characteristic nutty quality. Baked mushrooms reminded me of something I made years ago -- though these are portobellos, while my retro cocktail recipe called for button mushrooms. The dish was garnished with more unremarkable arugula. A shrimp Caesar was much too cold and the lettuce was a little wet before the dressing went on, so it didn't stick. The pizza dough, which had a fine taste and melting mozzarella, was soggy. Eggplant Parm is a good rendition of the dish, a kind of North End-red-sauce version. The menu says "hand-breaded eggplant." Is there another way to bread if not using the hands?

When we needed the waitress, we practically had to flag her down. Food came from runners, who had to ask us things like, "Who has the Caesar?"

Croma's sticky toffee pudding ($6.95) was too dense and not worth the calories. Tiramisu ($5.50), which has had its run, to be sure -- there was a time when every restaurant in town, Italian or not, served it -- was the hit of the night. The cocoa-dusted light-textured cake turned out to be quite good.

On the second visit, we sat inside. About 65 tables are on the floor above street level, another 65 are downstairs. There were not many other tables occupied around our upstairs seats, and our energetic waitress was so loud at first that we almost asked her to tone it down. She grew on us over the course of dinner, however. At 9 p.m., when she came to the table to take the orders, someone abruptly "dimmed" the lights, and we could no longer read the menus. Our waitress joked about how the restaurant was trying to set the mood.

Though we hesitated, she insisted that we order the baked mushrooms. And they were miles better than the first time, with some real mushroom flavor; even the arugula had taste.

Seafood cannelloni ($12.95), in which morsels of lobster, scallops, and shrimp were mixed with a sherry-infused creamy sauce, was better made than anything on our first visit. And the "Florentina" pizza ($10.95) had a firm crust. Nestled in the spinach and mozzarella was a fried egg, which, when broken, formed a little sauce on top. Things were improving quickly.

A little regression: Baked dough balls and olives ($4.95), warm rounds of baked pizza dough served with garlic butter, featured undercooked dough. And the Nicoise salad ($11.95) with its "free-range egg" was mounded with flaked tuna of little quality. The egg had a gray circle around the yolk, the tomatoes were not "vine-ripened," and the dish included yet another dough ball.

Asparagi pizza ($10.50), with oven-roasted tomatoes and roasted asparagus spears, was as good and crisp as the Florentina. This time toffee pudding, which we did not order, but which our waitress brought to the table anyway, was warm and much less dense. She kept asking if we were having a family reunion because of the variety of ages at our table. And when we didn't answer either way, she decided she was correct, which was why she brought the pudding, she said (though my colleague told me that everyone has been getting one).

Now someone has to go into the kitchen and tell the cooks to order better-tasting ingredients and bake the dough until it's cooked through. The crowds will come for now, but what will happen when it's no longer patio weather? All Cheap Eats reviews may be retrieved from Boston.com at www.boston.com/ae/food/restaurants. Pha Le Steakhouse 699 Morrissey Blvd., Dorchester. 617-288-1777. Sushi has arrived in Dorchester, in the cavernous space once held by Linda Mae's. Gone are the breakfast specials and sandwiches of yore. In its Asian incarnation, the Pha Le Steakhouse offers Chinese and Japanese specials, and hopes to add Vietnamese for lunch. Sit at the sushi bar and watch the chef work his magic, or take a table or booth in one of the two dining rooms. The seafood is fresh; try the salted and pepper jumbo shrimp. If you're a noodle fan, try the beef chow foon. (7/1/04, B.E.)

Big Fresh Cafe 341 Cochituate Road, Framingham. 508-879-7000. Whole foods, good grains, lots of fresh vegetables and fruit, and good sources of protein. Those, Karen and Kevin Masterson believe, are the secrets to good health. So that's what they serve at Big Fresh Cafe, their good-for-you, environmentally conscious restaurant, where the motto is "eat well, live well." (6/24/04, S.P.)

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