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DINING OUT | TARTUFO AT THE BRICKYARD

Food that should draw a crowd

Editor's note: Alison Arnett recently retired from the Globe. Dining Out will feature a rotation of guest reviewers until the paper names a new restaurant critic.

Poor little Tartufo.

Ever since it opened a year and a half ago, bloggers who track the comings and goings of restaurants have been predicting its demise.

Too empty, they report. Not enough customers. Business seems fatally slow. Visit soon, one urged as far back as last summer, because rumor has it this North Cambridge spot is going to close.

But Tartufo has soldiered on. And it's done so despite a dining room that is often disconcertingly barren, likely keeping potential customers away.

Rumors are destructive, after all, and why bother spending money on a place that's supposedly circling the drain? So if the Internet gossip about closure ends up proving true, consider this a regrettable early epitaph for one of the more promising young restaurants you may never get to try.

Tartufo at the Brickyard, as it's formally known, flirts with excellence and very often achieves it. Its executive chef and co-owner, Dante Bellucci, was chef for four years at Ristorante Marino, the fanciest dining destination in North Cambridge until it closed earlier this year.

In 2004, Bellucci created a restaurant of his own called Tartufo, in Newton, and its success spurred him to open a second location in Cambridge. To both Tartufos, he brought the same magic that made Marino's so popular for so many years: fresh, gorgeous Italian food in a casually upscale setting.

But in Cambridge, Bellucci gambled, riskily, on perhaps the most critical element for any new restaurant: location. Tartufo at the Brickyard is housed in a squat brick office building on a busy, narrow side street. That doesn't give it much visibility, and its real-estate handicap is worsened by a "for lease" sign in a front window, giving the misimpression the restaurant has shut down.

Bellucci, who speaks with the melodious accent of his native Abruzzo, a mountainous coastal region of Italy, believes his high-caliber food can overcome these hurdles. "You give people good quality, the people come back," he says with conviction.

I wish top quality were enough to guarantee Tartufo's survival, because my first visit left me nearly spellbound. A sole special, in a vibrant sauce of white wine, lemon, and mushrooms, is so light it seems to levitate. Chicken scallopini with lemon, enough for a double portion, combines the sharp shock of citrus with the salty zing of capers, artichokes, and sundried tomatoes.

A tremendously good grilled portobello mushroom is marinated in balsamic vinegar and, ingeniously, maple syrup, which takes the edge off the vinegar's acidity. Another creative tweak: crab cakes fattened with finely shredded carrots, adding unexpected color, texture, and taste. Seafood risotto -- chunky with clams, mussels, shrimp, and scallops -- belongs in a food stylist's photo shoot: The shellfish framing the dish are color-coordinated so that black mussels are evenly interspersed with white clams.

And the calamari! As an appetizer, it's grilled, a preparation that drew this puzzled remark from a woman at a nearby table: "This isn't done the normal way." By normal, she probably meant fried. But Bellucci's version is superior. Served salad-style with baby arugula, radicchio, and cannellini beans, it has a pleasingly smoky taste you'll never get from a Fryolator.

Service, too, is impressive. Our waiter on two of three visits -- a serious, quiet Peruvian fellow named Boris -- is efficient and attentive, and he grows warmer as he sees how much we are enjoying our food, as if sharing our pleasure. Charmingly, the pretty dining room -- high-ceilinged, awash with natural light, splashed with vivid blue and yellow -- offers a snapshot of urban Americana. Its tall windows look onto a row of colorful Cambridge houses lined cheek-to-jowl across the street.

On a second visit, flaws surface. Black Angus sirloin steak, ordered medium, arrives thoroughly well-done, and the worse for it. Near the bone, the meat is moist, a hint of what could have been if it hadn't languished on the grill. Another red meat, veal, should nearly melt in the mouth, but Tartufo's veal scallopini is chewy.

Gnocchi is forgettable -- just little dough lumps swimming in tomato sauce. They're no match for a lobster ravioli appetizer special, densely packed with meat in a decadent crab-cognac cream sauce. On a third visit, I fell in love again: with the tender grilled chicken sandwich and its thick layer of garlicky sauteed spinach . . . with the expertly al dente mushroom ravioli . . . with the chubby Gulf shrimp in aromatic cognac reduction sauce.

Most desserts come from Bindi, a national supplier. The best is the tartufo, cappuccino gelato with a soft chocolate center. It's rich, sweet, creamy, and delicious. Lemon sorbet is refreshing, like iced lemonade. Cannoli, made in-house, is marginal, its pastry shell a touch stale, its ricotta filling undersweet and oddly pasty.

Most dishes are reasonably priced and generously apportioned. One or two seem stingy. Should a $10 shrimp appetizer contain only four crustaceans? Should a pasta-and-meatballs entree have only three meatballs? It may not matter. In a few weeks, Bellucci plans to install a brick pizza oven and maybe a wine bar, and Tartufo may close for a few days while that happens. He's also toying with a name change -- to Grangusto, meaning "great taste."

How much the retooled Tartufo will resemble the existing one remains to be seen. I hope it changes minimally, so I can go back for the delicate haddock sauteed with cherry tomatoes and fiery red pepper and for the blazingly orange minestrone soup stocked with a dozen grains and vegetables.

Because in spite of scattered disappointments, we find ourselves eager to return. After our second meal, a companion made a telling remark: "There were definitely things I didn't like, but not enough not to go back." That may be the proof of a restaurant's true success: loved for its strengths, and forgiven for its weaknesses.

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