|Lobster fra diavolo, which has a welcome kick, comes with a generous half-lobster. (Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)|
Big food, with extra charisma
New Strega on Fan Pier exudes attitude
Nick Varano does everything to the nth degree. The restaurateur’s first branch of Strega, in the North End, isn’t just popular. It’s “Boston’s most coveted table reservation,’’ according to the website. He doesn’t just roll out a line of tomato sauce named for the restaurant, he “brazenly unveils’’ it. And he doesn’t just open a second Strega on Fan Pier. He creates a 5,700-square-foot restaurant with several fireplaces, flooring imported from Italy, and a piano. On the walls are large-scale portraits of Frank Sinatra, Al Pacino, and Sophia Loren by local artist Giovanni DeCunto, and 20 flat-screen TVs that run side by side in an unbroken chain of pixels. (Images of Varano himself play on half of them, posing with Paulie Walnuts at the opening bash for Strega Waterfront. Because Varano doesn’t have an opening party. He has a bash.)
Then he fills the place, night after night. He’s a celebrity in his own mind, and where better to be a celebrity?
Strega Waterfront is an improbable nexus of Vegas, the Bronx, and the Jersey Shore, in stoic Boston. Italian families fill the private dining rooms, bringing balloons and brightly frosted cakes for birthday parties. Cougars in business suits warm their frosted manes by the fire. Power players drink at the bar. There is more leopard print per capita than is generally seen in these parts. The women on staff wear sequined miniskirts, and lifelong waiters scurry about speaking Italian. Tease the employee with the white handlebar mustache about taking a turn on that piano and he’ll ruffle your hair. There is a warmth and a busy-ness here. Varano — who is also behind Nico, Nick Varano’s Famous Deli, and the Ocean Club at Marina Bay — makes the rounds, introducing himself to each and every table, a big man in a good suit who keeps eye contact the whole time he’s talking to you. If it’s noblesse oblige, it feels sincere. He is your host and he wants to take care of you. (There’s free valet parking and downtown shuttle service to prove it.)
The kitchen, under executive chef Salvatore Firicano, sometimes holds up its end of the bargain. Antipasto platters heaped with meats and cheeses satisfy, as does an appetizer of clams and mussels in spicy tomato sauce. There are two versions of risotto, one chock-full of seafood, the other with chicken, portobello mushrooms, and spinach — both vast bowls of wonderfully creamy, al dente grains.
Lobster fra diavolo is actually devilish, with the kick you want from this dish but so rarely get. There’s a generous half-lobster in with the spaghetti, and a cracker with which to free the meat. It’s a messy proposition, but one worth getting all Lady Macbeth for. (“What, will these hands ne’er be clean?’’) The lobster is tender and sweet.
Gnocchi here aren’t the fluffy, angelic variety that woo you with lightness. These want to stick to your ribs, stolid and good-natured. You’d never forget these dumplings are made from potatoes, but you’ll enjoy them all the same, in a bright tomato sauce with buffalo mozzarella.
Calabrisella, a chicken dish, features juicy poultry paired with prosciutto, spinach, and Fontina cheese. It’s Italian comfort food, simple and satisfying. And a zuppa di mare special one night is a brimming bowlful of fresh seafood in a zesty, cioppino-esque tomato broth.
But a salad of arugula, grapefruit, walnuts, and Parmesan is virtually undressed, the grapefruit cut clumsily in thick rounds. Pappardelle with truffles and wild mushrooms in cream sauce is bland, with almost no mushroom flavor. Fettuccine Strega suffers a similar problem; it’s a generous portion of pasta tossed with good shrimp and scallops, but the cream sauce is one-dimensional. It would be much better with a few generous shakes of salt.
A 20-ounce veal chop is as large as it is dry; the prosciutto and Fontina stuffing and white wine demi-glace can’t change that. Grilled filet mignon comes with figs in cognac sauce. It’s also dry, and the meat lacks flavor. At $43 each, these dishes are expensive missteps.
Desserts tend toward the likes of tiramisu and cannoli, and they’re fine at that. The folks behind the bar will make you a perfectly proportioned Campari and soda; the wine list blankets Italy, but also France and California, with budget bottles and a few astronomically priced rarities. Keep an eye out, lest the midprice bottle you order is mistaken for one from the same estate that costs twice as much, as happens to us one night. Keep an eye out, too, for the server annoyed that you are the last guests in his section on a Saturday. He’ll drop plates on your table from a height of several inches, then ignore you until you pay up. Those plates are hefty. Watch your fingers.
His attitude just seems part of the atmosphere. At one table, loud-suited, loud-mouthed gentlemen are horsing around, playfully throwing things at one another. At another, two young women nibble delicate bites of pasta, Botoxed beyond their years. A mother holds a squirming child in her lap, feeding him bites of cake as his cousins look on. A PR magnate is being wined and dined. Show up on the right night and you could have thrown your hat in the ring to become a cohost of “The Strega Life,’’ a monthly variety show to air on NESN. Guess who’s taking the Dean Martin role.
That would be Varano, who arrives at your table to shake hands all around. He looks you in the eye and thanks you for coming. You’re a celebrity in his own mind, too.
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.