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Globe North Dining Out

Casual atmosphere, savory Italian fare in downtown Andover

By Kathleen Pierce
Globe Correspondent / October 16, 2011

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Depending on the whim of the hostess, you could have vastly different experiences at Andolini’s. The months-old newcomer to downtown Andover is safe for families, dates, and celebrations. Want a quiet corner to canoodle? There’s a room for that.

We visited on a Friday night and the bar - an elevated horseshoe that is not handicapped-accessible, unlike the dining room - twinkled like a slice of Manhattan. We put our name in for a table and joined the affable crowd sipping wine as Ol’ Blue Eyes crooned through the speakers. If regulars mourned the transition from Glory, the beloved bistro that stood here for more than a decade, to a more casual Italian restaurant, none were apparent this night.

The bar is so inviting, it was hard to mind the 40-minute wait that stretched to 60. The upbeat mood of the well-dressed couples, friends, and bartenders mirrored the celebratory end of the work week.

Prosecco by the glass ($8) was crisp and nicely priced. With the recent wine-by-the-glass inflation permeating into the suburbs, we were pleased to see ample reds for $8. The pours were generous as well.

We ordered a few bar snacks, fried mussels ($6), and stuffed hot cherry peppers ($4). Although the snacks did not arrive as quickly as their description would suggest, the mussels were so sublime we soon forgot. Lightly dusted and served with a dulcet lemon sauce, they could contend for the best bar bites north of Boston. A towering order of bruschetta ($6) and fragrant fried calamari ($7) that sailed through the room turned our heads too late.

When I flagged the hostess down to inquire whether our table was ready, the evening’s mood took a turn. Landing in the busiest and most mundane of the dining rooms had us wondering why we were misfiled in family central. Dun-colored walls and flat lighting that lacked the convivial warmth of the bar left us cold. This is the first lesson in Zen and the art of restaurant reservations: If you’re happy in the bar, stay there.

The lounge with the wall of candles and the more intimate casual chic room would have suited us much better. But Andolini’s is family-friendly, and it was nice to see all the multigenerational gatherings.

The straightforward menu is broken into three areas: pasta, pizza, and old-school favorites. The ultimate giant veal chop ($38), topped with special tomato sauce and mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses and served with Tuscan fries, has its own category. We were tempted by the chicken a la Parmigiano ($16), catching a glimpse of its greatness at the bar, but it looked too grand.

We split an arugula salad ($7) with lemon, olive oil, and shaved Parmesan cheese. It was crisp, astringent and fresh, exactly what a salad should be.

When our entrees arrived, the casualness of Andolini’s was on display. The waitress set down plain bowls with homemade masterpieces nestled inside. No tablecloths, no tray, just a throw-down emblematic of a rustic Sicilian kitchen.

The penne with sausage, peas, tomato and cream ($15) was succulent and savory. The cream did not overpower this al dente dish; it played nicely with its counterparts. Tangy and terrific.

A close second was spaghetti with local clams ($18). Served with a splash of tomato and parsley, this dish is refined Italian cooking at its most stripped down. It wasn’t as flavorful or memorable as the penne, though. Pasta is perfectly cooked here, firm and fabulous. One suspects any of the nine options would turn out well.

Portions, which can feel like heaps at some Italian eateries, are in control at Andolini’s, enough so that you just might take a chance on dessert.

Creme brulee and tiramisu are shopworn, so go with the seasonal berries ($9) with homemade whipped cream. The light (we can kid ourselves this late in the game) and creamy dessert was irresistible. Paired with espresso, it set us off into the autumn night fortified, satisfied, and ready for a leisurely stroll across the town green.

Andolini”s

19 Essex St., Andover

978-475-4811

www.andolinisrestaurant.com

Hours: Monday through Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Sunday 5 to 9 p.m.

Major charge cards, except Discover

Ratings

  • 4 Stars Extraordinary
  • 3 Stars Excellent
  • 2 Stars Good
  • 1 Star Fair
  • No Stars Poor