Italian delight on North Shore
Chianti Tuscan Restaurant
285D Cabot Street, Beverly
Open daily, 5:30-11 p.m.
Major credit cards accepted
Accessible to the handicapped
Richard Marino loves people. He also loves to dream. Back in the 1980s, when he was a traveling paint salesman, he used to look forward to visiting a Cabot Street paint shop. When the owner retired, he struck a deal with Marino, allowing the Medford-born budding chef a space to open his own Italian restaurant.
Seventeen years ago, you would have been hard-pressed to find a quality Italian restaurant in the area. So, when Chianti opened in the quiet downtown section of Beverly in 1992, people wondered: Why Beverly?
About a decade ago, people stopped asking that question. With Chianti serving as the granddaddy restaurant of downtown Beverly, Cabot Street has becoming a North Shore dining destination.
On a recent Sunday night, we returned to Chianti and confirmed that it is one of the best Italian restaurants in the area. The food, service and ambience are superb.
This is a place where chefs, kitchen, and wait staff work for a decade at a time. They stay here for the same reason loyal customers return: They love everything about the place. Marino will go to the extra mile for anybody here. On occasion, he'll drive over to the train station to pick up diners from Boston who come just for his food. Bill Cosby has Marino's cellphone number and sometimes calls his order in. The comedian Jackie Mason has sat in the main dining room, and to the delight of fellow diners, worked the room, going from table to table.
We were seated inside the main dining room, where Whose Muddy Shoes - a quartet that plays everything from bluegrass to traditional jazz - entertains every Sunday. The mellow music and harmonies, combined with the white tablecloths and soft conversations, suggested Manhattan more than Beverly, and more than once I had to ask if this was really the North Shore I have always known.
Decades ago, when I grew up here, the only place where they served Italian food like this was inside friends' homes. We began with appetizers, choosing il portabella ($9), carciolo ($7), and gnocchi del casentino ($9).
Chianti is known for its sauces, and judging from the appetizers, they were as consistent as ever. The grilled portabella fillets, served over baby spinach and roasted red peppers, were large and tasted like good steak. The carcioli, lightly fired artichoke hearts topped with a roasted pepper, were sweet and filling. The gnocchi potato dumplings also were perfect. Made with wild greens, Parmesan, and ricotta cheese, they're served in a Gorgonzola cream sauce, an exotic, pungent offering that made the dumplings anything but peasant food.
The entrees were even better. The grilled salmon ($22), glazed with honey balsamic vinegar, added a perfect sweetness to the crunchy, mild fish.
Like most great restaurants, Chianti will make something that's not on the menu if you simply ask. The fettuccini alfredo ($15) was made specially to order, and Marino revealed why it's so good. He uses Oakhurst heavy cream, a Maine product, for his sauces and the alfredo.
Marino has ventured into offering more vegan dishes, and the zuchillini ($14) also was wonderful. For this plate, Marino shreds a whole zucchini into pasta-looking strips, and then combines it with a warm plum tomato sauce topped with basil. The natural sugars from the zucchini provide a sweet base to the thick sauce, and make you wonder, who needs pasta?
Despite the difficult economy, Marino is set to expand his restaurant again. In late April, he'll open two new dining rooms in an adjacent storefront, along with a standing bar. Also, he'll add a separate menu that will include lots of pastas and meals for under $20. At a time when many restaurateurs are closing their doors, Marino sounded an optimistic note: "I believe people still want to be served, and when they do I'll always be there for them."