While our scheduled reviewer fights the flu, we look back at some recent visits to local restaurants:
Mt. Vernon at The Ship
Route 1 South, Lynnfield
The Ship on Route 1 South has been many things. It has been seafood restaurants. It has been family dining.
It seems to me that if your restaurant is shaped like a boat, you should serve seafood. Isn’t that supposed to be the gimmick?
Well, now it is. The building that also houses the Yankee Candle Co. is now Mt. Vernon, a place for seafood, pasta, and classic New England dinners. Mt. Vernon, which opened in Lynnfield in August, has two other locations - in Somerville and Revere. The business has been run by the same family for 75 years.
We started with the Thai calamari ($8), which was a fine take on a classic appetizer. The dish was doused in a tangy peanut sauce and served with a small dollop of spicy seaweed salad.
A small cup of the corn chowder ($3) was enough for both of us. It was basically a tiny bowl of heavy cream, but that is how to do it right.
My dining companion ordered the surf and turf ($23.24), probably inspired by the nautical-themed building. The surf was great: plump shrimp on a skewer. The meat, however, wasn’t cooked to order. She asked for medium rare, but it was brown all the way through. The homemade, buttery potatoes on the side almost made up for it.
I went for the chicken parmigiana ($10), which was a plate of heaping pasta with cheese melted all over the meat. It was a standard take on the dish, but for $10, I was pretty thrilled with what I got, which was dinner and leftovers for lunch.
In the end, with two appetizers, two entrees, a soup, two desserts, and coffee, our bill came to about $70. That may be what keeps Mt. Vernon in business - the atmosphere is pleasant, the food has potential, and in this economy, the price is just right. Perhaps the big ship on Route 1 has finally found the right tenant.
Pizza in Piazza
5-13 Mount Vernon St., Winchester
As co-owners of Lucia Ristorante & Bar in Winchester and the North End, brothers Donato and Filippo Frattaroli have been preparing fresh Italian food for more than 30 years. With Lucia known for upscale dining, however, Donato Frattaroli said he was long aware of the need for more family-friendly establishments. Pizza in Piazza, which recently reopened after a hiatus of several years in Lucia’s downstairs function room, fills that need.
The bruschetta caprese ($5) consisted of two pieces of grilled bread topped with diced, sweet cherry tomatoes and fresh mozzarella, drizzled with extra virgin olive oil that softened the crust, and sprinkled with basil. The antipasto della casa ($8.75) featured prosciutto, salami, and provolone cheese served with marinated, grilled eggplant, zucchini, and roasted red peppers.
We wisely ordered two servings of the arancini ($2.50), which resembled two large meatballs whose thin but crispy exterior gave way to a warm mixture of mozzarella cheese, peas, and Arborio rice that was moist without being mushy. The accompanying marinara sauce was light and tangy.
A far heavier, meatier sauce topped the cavatappi alla bolognese ($6.75), a rich, corkscrew-shaped pasta dish that was surprisingly filling, given its size. The two sliced, barbecued Abruzzese sausages in the salsicce arrosto ($8.50) were mild but flavorful, with the grill marks still visible. These were served with the same marinated and thinly sliced eggplant, zucchini, and roasted red peppers that we had sampled in the antipasto.
Our favorite, however, was the pizza del buongustaio ($12 small; $15 large), a white pizza covered with mozzarella, thinly sliced potatoes, pancetta, gorgonzola, and rosemary. While potato may not be first pizza topping that comes to mind, the combination of flavors made it seem completely natural.
The desserts, all homemade, include tiramisu, cheesecake, cannoli, and panna cotta served with a choice of mixed berry, Nutella, caramel, or balsamic glaze topping. Fortunately, to-go containers are available.
The Village Restaurant
55 Main St., Essex
We had driven by the Village Restaurant in Essex’s main intersection hundreds of times but had never gone in. We assumed it was a regular old family restaurant: a place with an enormous, meat-heavy menu and lots of frozen entrees out back ready for thawing. We realized our mistake when the man at the front desk handed us bumper stickers advertising the Village’s website, www.wedigclams.com. According to the site, Saveur magazine labeled the Village’s specially prepared bivalves “the best soft-shells in the universe.’’
We chose to pass up the Restaurant Week special of a three-course meal for $22.09 from a limited menu, even if it was an outstanding deal. Instead, we picked and chose items that struck our fancy from the reasonably priced full menu. An appetizer of portobello crostini ($7) - marinated mushroom and roasted red pepper baked with mozzarella on crispy garlic bread - was mouth-wateringly good, and it was big enough to give everyone in our party of four a decent sampling.
A bowl of oyster stew ($11) was more soup than stew, but it, too, was delectable. The chowder was rich and buttery-tasting, and the oysters tender. And it was hot. In fact, all the cooked entrees we ordered were apparently whisked to us straight from the kitchen. The service was efficient and friendly, despite the nearly full house.
The menu emphasized that most of the seafood the restaurant buys is fresh, not frozen. One of our party of four ordered the traditional grilled fresh swordfish ($17). He liked it, but he would have liked it better if he’d overruled his wife’s advice and ordered it Cajun-style, with pepper and spices.
A plate of broiled assorted seafood ($19) was a tasty collection of scallops, haddock, shrimp, and salmon. It was simple, fresh, and juicy. Like several of the other entrees, there was enough left over to take home for another meal. An order of haddock LuAnne ($16), a house specialty, was lightly dusted with bread crumbs and topped with tomatoes and red onions. It wasn’t pretentious, just flavorful.
The fourth member of our party, a woman with such high culinary standards that she buys her fish directly from the Gloucester docks and rarely eats out, had a plate of grilled mahi mahi ($18).
She’d been reluctant to visit what she assumed was a high-volume, low-pizzazz family restaurant, but she loved her fish dish. The mahi-mahi came with a touch of fresh citrus butter and was topped with mango salsa. “Yummy,’’ she said when she’d finished it all. ‘That was just plain-old good food.’’ We were impressed that she was impressed.
COCO MCCABE AND DOUG STEWART