New name, decor, and menu a hit
For the last 16 years, Cathy Ribeck of Lowell has been a familiar and welcoming sight as general manager of Vincenzo’s Restaurant in Chelmsford, asking about patrons’ families while greeting them at the door, taking orders, serving meals, and clearing dishes.
Last May, she added yet another responsibility: co-owner, with retired Dracut Police Department patrolman Bill Dubois of Lowell.
Ribeck, who changed the restaurant’s name to Rufina’s in July, said she is overjoyed that so many regular customers continue to return. She has also worked tirelessly to attract new diners through Facebook, fund-raisers, and promotions such as ladies’ night (20 percent off entrees) on Thursdays.
“You have your worries and concerns when you take over a restaurant that’s been in business for 30 years,’’ Ribeck said. “But now I’m so excited and happy. I’m home here.’’
Longtime patrons likely notice some of Ribeck’s personal touches, such as new paint colors in the lounge and function room, and bright flower artwork in place of the dark and somewhat stern portraits that used to hang in the still deep-red dining room. However, the wait staff is the same, as is longtime chef Rob Neely, whom Ribeck has encouraged to experiment with recipes. Many of his new dishes, first served as specials, have become long-term menu items.
One such example, the vongole al imbottito ($8) appetizer, was being served as a special when our four-person party visited on a recent Friday night. The two baked quahogs overflowed with a stuffing of fresh chopped sea clams, celery, carrots, onion, Tabasco sauce, and panko bread crumbs drizzled with herb lemon and white-wine butter sauce. Because they are so large, they require 10 full minutes to cook - longer than other appetizers, but worth the wait.
Our second appetizer, calamari di peperone ($10), wasn’t the typical fried variety because Rufina’s does not have a fryolator. Instead, the tender seafood was sautéed with sweet cherry peppers, pepperoncini, banana peppers, and a pinch of red pepper flake. It was served with four wedges of garlic toast that were perfect for sopping up the garlic and white-wine broth.
Unbeknownst to us at the time, the diner who ordered the risotto di aragosta ($26) enjoyed one of its last remaining days on the summer menu. The dish was a creamy combination of chunks of lobster meat sautéed with shallots and slivered asparagus, and tossed with Arborio rice infused with roasted tomatoes and Parmesan cheese. Ribeck said it may occasionally run as a special, but it has been replaced on the fall menu by lobster mac and cheese ($24), chunks of fresh lobster meat sautéed and tossed with penne pasta in a creamy blend of three Italian cheeses and baked with a panko crumb topping.
The salmone affumicato ($21) was a perfectly pan-roasted, flaky salmon filet beneath criss-crossed, thin asparagus spears with grilled vegetable ravioli. The dish was finished with a chunky pomodoro sauce of tomatoes, which Neely house-smokes with applewood chips.
The greco di angelo with shrimp ($18) consisted of angel-hair pasta sautéed with tomatoes, kalamata olives, and capers in a lemon, white-wine oregano sauce with crumbled feta cheese. The dish, which was chock-full of 10 shrimp, may alternatively be served with chicken ($16) or salmon ($19).
The gamberi al pesto ($19) is tender shrimp sautéed with mushrooms and sweet peas, tossed with angel-hair pasta and finished in a creamy basil pesto sauce. On the fall menu, according to Ribeck, this dish is now called linguine fini al pesto, offered with shrimp ($18) or salmon ($19).
For dessert, the zabaglione ($7) was an exceptionally airy, white chocolate mousse whipped with marsala wine and topped with chocolate shavings (which had been mini chocolate chips on the former Vincenzo’s menu). The Oreo cookie pie ($5) was served at the perfect temperature and drizzled in thick, high-quality hot fudge.
All desserts are made on site, with the exception of the cannoli shell, which encases homemade cannoli cream. In fact, according to Ribeck, everything outside of the pasta is made from scratch. Gluten-free pasta is available for those who request it.
“It’s a lot of work, but it’s all about listening to what people want and need,’’ she said. “We want people to be just as impressed, if not more impressed, with the food quality and service than they ever were.’’