Recently, an elderly woman smashed her car into the kitchen of the Spring Street Cafe in West Roxbury -- talk about drive-through service -- causing the place to close down for nine days. "The poor thing, I felt so bad for her," says Beth McNichols, the cafe's co-owner. It's this solicitous attitude that permeates the year-old restaurant. McNichols herself often waits on tables, steering you toward whatever she thinks is best that day, and she's honest. When asked if the wonderful pasta was made on the premises, she replies, "No. We don't have time," adding that they hire someone to make it. And here, time is of the essence: The cafe is open seven days a week and serves three meals on several of those days.
McNichols, whose father owned a pizza shop and was a chef in an Italian restaurant in Worcester, is also a partner at Cibo in the North End. Last September, she opened Spring Street with her brother, Michael Sousa, and friend Margaret Beatty.
The restaurant has the feel of a trattoria, with warm Tuscan colors, a blackboard with daily specials, ceiling fans, and a counter where you can also eat. (They have applied for a permit to add a patio for outdoor dining.) The menu is straightforward: antipasta, salads, pastas, veal, and chicken. All the usual Italian standards are here, including veal and chicken parm, spaghetti and meatballs, linguini with every kind of sauce.
What sets Spring Street apart from its peers is the quality of the food. McNichols says every sauced dish is made to order, except marinara and pesto, which must be made ahead of time. "Even in the North End, they're scooping your marsala sauce out of a jug," she says. "We do everything right from scratch." The pan-fried Italian greens ($7.95) offered a delicious mix of color and contrast: Wilted greens topped with garlic and olive oil were combined with salty pancetta and melted gorgonzola, accompanied by crisply fried polenta triangles. Bruschetta ($7.95) consisted of sturdy Tuscan bread, grilled and overflowing with diced tomatoes, smoky mozzarella, and fresh basil, all drizzled with oil. As tasty as it was -- everything was garden-fresh -- we could have done with fewer tomatoes.
Pasta takes center stage here, and it comes in large platters that are enough for another meal. We particularly like the butternut squash ravioli ($14.95). The stuffing is sweet, but not cloying, which went well with the mascarpone cheese sauce. Chunks of tender squash were mixed in among the pasta, which was cooked al dente.
The linguini carbonara ($11.95) is wonderful, with the salty pancetta -- not pedestrian American bacon -- making it special. And since it's not drowning in rich sauce, the onion and pancetta flavors don't have to fight their way through.
If you want a healthy meal, go for the linguini with broccoli rabe ($12.95). It's a fairly bland dish of Italian mustard greens sauteed with garlic in olive oil. Chicken saltimbocca ($13.95) is a tender pan-seared boneless breast, topped with thinly sliced prosciutto and sauteed in a white wine sauce infused with fresh sage. Mozzarella is melted on top. It's a fine dish, accompanied by grilled vegetables, but the side of risotto is plain and unexciting.
We've always loved gnocchi, and Spring Street's gnocchi tomato ($11.95) is a good bet. It's a plain, hearty dish, but the tomatoes are bursting with freshness and the pasta is cooked perfectly and isn't too doughy. For three more dollars, you can get it with chunks of chicken, spicy cappicola, and tomatoes in a creamy Romano sauce.
Desserts are slim pickings: tiramisu ($4.95) or cannoli ($3.50), both of them fine but neither of them thrilling or made on the premises. McNichols, who normally makes all the desserts, has a simple explanation: "I kind of took the summer off from that." In the fall, she says she'll return to her menu of chocolate cake, strawberry tiramisu, cheesecake, homemade biscotti, and brownies with ice cream. We'll be back.
Meanwhile, for an excellent sugar fix, go for breakfast and try the Spring Street French toast ($4.15). It's baked, not fried, and is served with a brown sugar topping, almost pudding-like. The menu note sums it up: "It's so good you don't even need syrup. (But you can have it if you want it.)" All Cheap Eats reviews may be retrieved from Boston.com at www.boston.com/ae/food/restaurants. Spot Cafe 385 Main St. (Rte. 20), Watertown. 617-923-2339. Modeled after a French patisserie, this European-style cafe is the anti-greasy spoon. Surrounded by hardwood floors and recessed lighting, you'll feel like you're eating in an art gallery. And, as befits a restaurant with Parisian aspirations, the Spot Cafe takes its bread very, very seriously. Supplied by a Montreal bakery, the breads are crusty, hearty, Old-World loaves -- including baguettes, baguettines, olive loaves, nut-raisin rolls and ciabatta -- baked in stone ovens. Then they're transformed into excellent French toast, delicious "breakfast quickies," interesting sandwiches, even homemade croutons. Open only for breakfast and lunch, the cafe rounds out its menu with salads (Greek and chicken Caesar are among the best), soups (try lentil with melted feta) and irresistible German chocolate cake. (08/19/04, S.P.)
The Blue Room Lunch Cart 1 Kendall Square, Cambridge. 617-494-1934. Weekdays from May through September (weather permitting), the upscale Blue Room goes casual for lunch. For about the price of sub, you can sit on the pretty patio munching expertly grilled meats and inspired sides (some recipes drawn from the popular brunch). For $6 to $8 get an entree, a choice of two sides, and a watermelon slice for dessert. You walk-up to order, choose your sides, and it's all dished out lickety-split onto a plastic plate. (D.T., 08/12/04)
Takara 592 Washington St., Canton. 781-821-8822. The blackboard specials here are the result of weekly staff brainstorming, and they're good bets. If available, try the tuna papaya, an artfully presented sushi dish, or the tuna heaven, an ethereal dish of light potato pancakes topped with raw tuna in a spicy mayo sauce. The sushi is as fresh as if it had just been pulled from the water. And don't forget to BYOB. (8/5/04, B.E.)