107 Essex St., Salem
Bella Verona is in a small storefront and could be easily missed, so it's best to remember that it's across from the Hawthorne Hotel. If you're going on a weekend, then it's best to make a reservation, as the 38-seat restaurant fills up quickly. Most customers are regulars, but on occasion, a celebrity walks though the doors.
On a recent Sunday night, we sat at one of the 10 tables, looking out at Essex Street. To the sounds of Pavarotti, we sampled the insalata caprese ($7) and a Caesar salad ($6). The caprese, a dish of sliced tomatoes and fresh mozzarella, topped with olive oil, basil , and vinegar, was outstanding. The mozzarella had texture and was peppery -- hardly the bland offering I've come to expect at local bistros. The Caesar salad, equally impressive, was served atop four slices of warm garlic bread.
The wait for the entr ees took close to 30 minutes, but when you're sitting in an exceptional restaurant, and sipping on a glass of Straccali chianti ($7), how anxious can you get?
For our main dishes, we chose the grilled salmon ($18) and a half-portion of fettuccini Alfredo ($8). The 10-ounce salmon filet was grilled perfectly. The fish was light and fresh, topped with salt, pepper, garlic , and olive oil, and was purchased in Ipswich.
The owner makes most of his own pasta, and we were not disappointed with the thick bands of fettuccini. The Alfredo sauce was sweet, warm, and not too thick. The portion was also generous, but not intimidating.
The tiramis u ($4.50) was fresh and sublime.
Fresh Taste of Asia 118 Washington St., Salem
When I order sushi to go, I usually come home with two sets of chopsticks in the bag. Restaurants assume, I guess, that I've ordered enough for two. It makes me feel like a pig.
But here, at the Fresh Taste of Asia, a new restaurant with a view of the Bewitched statue in downtown Salem, there is no judgment. There is only love and down-to-earth service from a nice woman named Merisa.
There are fancy, almost menacing-looking sushi rolls that could be served in high-end, expensive Japanese bistros, but reasonably priced . There are California rolls that are no big deal for novices.
There is a regular menu of Japanese and Asian entr ees for under $11.
Our starter plate was the tuna tataki ($10). It was a delicate flower of tuna strips served with sprouting greens in a tasty, chutney-like ponzu sauce. It was a bit like a regular plate of sashimi, but the display was fantastic.
For sushi, we did it up with no holding back. We ordered six rolls.
Worth mentioning are a few:
The Idaho maki ($5.50) was the sweetest sweet potato, deep fried with a perfect ratio of rice to potato.
The crazy maki ($8) was indeed crazy, much like a regular spicy tuna roll but with tasty Pop Rocks-like tempura flakes.
The unagi maki ($6.75) was sweet and fresh.
First prize went to the volcano maki ($12), which apparently had tuna and cucumber in it.
The rolls were overwhelmed, in a good way, by a mountain of orange seafood, spicy fresh fish.
MEREDITH GOLDSTEIN The Bury
1721 Main St., Tewksbury
As the number of cable channels rises and the price of projection TVs drops, sports bars are as ubiquitous in these sports-crazed regions as Patriots bumper stickers. The Bury knows the score.
Taking its name from the popular moniker of this working-class town, The Bury appeals to sports fans who want to relax after work with a beer and bite while watching the game on a big-screen TV.
Located in a strip mall on Route 38, the restaurant is divided into a homey dining room and a lively pub. With the Red Sox pounding the Yankees, the pub was alive with pleasure while the dining room, with cushy booths and a pretty stone fireplace, lay dead to the world.
With more than 100 items, the menu attempts to appeal to everyone in the grandstands.
The menu goes from a hot dog ($3.50) to a 20-ounce cut of prime rib ($17.95). In between, it offers a diversity of items such as shepherd's pie ($5.95), a steak and cheese sub ($7), pork chops with balsamic reduction and roasted potatoes ($11.95), mussels ($12.50), baked tilapia ($13), and chicken Florentine ($14).
We enjoyed several items in the TewMac Taster ($10), especially boneless buffalo strips, with sufficient zip; jalapeno poppers; and potato skins, nicely crisped with a sprinkle of bacon crumbs. The sampler came with melted cheese, ranch dressing, and sour cream.
Swinging for the fences, we ordered one of the most expensive dishes, scallops and shrimp Grand Marnier ($16). The shellfish was battered and deep fried, served with sweet orange sauce.