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MangiAmerica theme serves them well

Stuffed shrimp Stuffed shrimp at Gennaro's 5 North Square in the North End on June 15. (Jonathan Wiggs for The Boston Globe)
By Devra First
Globe Staff / June 20, 2012
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What is it about the North End? Part genuine, part theme-park salute to Italy, it offers strolls on cobblestone, moments of charm, good torrone, bad gelato, tight-knit neighbors, obnoxious partiers, often overpriced meals of varying delight, cartoonish statues of chefs marking restaurant doors, increasingly decent boutique shopping, plenty of opportunities to purchase pink Sox hats and T-shirts with corny Boston- and/or Italian-themed slogans, and limitless offers of pedicab rides. Sometimes it’s delightful; others it comes with extra cheese.

It’s particularly confounding when it comes to eating. People are eternally compelled to come here for Italian food. Yet, as with many theme parks, there isn’t always strong incentive for restaurants to serve delicious, consistent fare. Many diners are just passing through. If a restaurant has a good location with plenty of foot traffic and is decorated to look like someone’s idea of the quintessential trattoria, it stands a reasonable chance of success.

Gennaro’s 5 North Square encapsulates much of what is wonderful and infuriating about the neighborhood. It is located in one of the North End’s quaintest corners, right near Paul Revere’s house on a cobbled square. The downstairs is airy and light, decorated in earthy Tuscan hues, with big windows offering street views. The upstairs dining room is ornate and cozier, bordering on stuffy on a warm day. At night, the restaurant’s green-and-white neon sign is a beacon for the hungry.

The welcome from the staff is warm. Unlike some restaurants, geared mainly toward tourists, Gennaro’s has regulars. They are either family or are just being treated like it. There are hugs and effusive greetings all around. People are speaking Italian. Kids seem to feel at home here, as if they’re visiting a relative’s house for dinner. A waitress calls the guests at her table “sweeties,” and in the bar area, the people mixing drinks are your new best friends. All of this? It’s what people come to the North End hoping to find.

The restaurant isn’t new. It’s owned and operated by the Riccio family, also behind the likes of Caffe Vittoria and Florentine Cafe. It does, however, have a new executive chef. Marisa Iocco won me over long ago at Galleria Italiana, but she has also gained fans over the years at La Bettola, Bricco, Spiga, and more. She debuted a new menu here in April. It is titled MangiAmerica, and it showcases the food of Italian America. This is ironic, because Iocco is actually from Italy. It is also perfect, because she became a US citizen last year. Here is an accomplished Italian chef reinterpreting a reinterpreted and changed version of her native cuisine, an immigrant preparing immigrants’ dishes. Iocco’s grandfather worked building railroads in Boston and New York, sending money back home. So this is a chef getting to know her roots in reverse, “Big Night” backward. Who could resist?

On a recent visit, Iocco is walking the floor, elegant and trim as a greyhound, with chic short hair and angular glasses. She takes time to talk to a group of students, recommends several dishes to a young man at the bar, and spends a lot of time messing with her phone, protected by a sleek white case. She has style.

But the moment the first dish lands, it is clear her energies are misplaced. She is needed in the kitchen. The batter is flaking off the squid, and one can tell how soggy it is just by looking at it. Fried calamari is a dish rarely flubbed. This version is terrible. The spicy sauce it comes with is vaguely Asian in flavor and rather sharp, but a dish of “Marisa’s marinara” is excellent for dipping, fresh and bright.

Stuffed shrimp are better. The garlicky filling has good flavor, although it is on the gummy side. But it’s a heart-sinking moment when the veal Parmigiana arrives. The thin piece of breaded meat is topped with distinct shreds of mozzarella that look as though they have been (barely) melted in the microwave. Dishes here are served at fluctuating temperatures; they are often not quite hot enough, or else too hot to eat. The veal is tasteless and dry.

Sunday through Thursday, Gennaro’s 5 North Square serves family-style specialties for four people or more. Rigatoni with Sunday gravy sounds dynamite, with meatballs, sausage, and ribs. It arrives in a white bowl with high sides, which makes it difficult to get to the pasta at the bottom. There is barely any sauce — is this a reflection of the Italian sensibility? When it comes to Italian-American gravy, it’s a disappointment. Meatballs are so dry no one wants to eat them. And the portion is small, better for two truly hungry people or three with moderate appetites.

On further visits, the food is not so dismal. Nor is it great. Mozzarella in carrozza (“in a carriage”) is a tower of bread filled with cheese and fried. Bites of anchovies offer strong, salty punctuation. Beef meatballs are not dry this time around, although they are a bit gristly. Italian restaurants, and some non-Italian ones too, have focused on meatballs in recent years, making them richer, more decadent, more tender. These are basic. Italian-American fare isn’t necessarily complex, but it should still offer deep, savory, homey flavors.

Manicotti have a ricotta filling judiciously tinged with nutmeg, not too sweet as the spice can sometimes be. The rollups are topped with a fine Bolognese, but the edges of the crepes are crisped and dry, overheated. Ravioli filled with short rib and mozzarella and bathed in marinara are delicious, with the deep flavors we’ve been expecting. The portion, however, is small, about five squares of pasta. Cod cooked with potatoes and olives in white wine sauce is redolent of garlic, with a clean taste. But the dish is lukewarm, and the breading on the fish is again soggy.

Gennaro’s 5 North Square has many things going for it. One can get dessert here — cheesecake with cherry sauce, cannoli, bread pudding — nothing mind-blowing, but pleasant, and not something all North End restaurants offer. The wine list is smart, categorizing bottles by price and offering glass selections one doesn’t usually see — an aglianico, for instance.

Iocco’s menu offers an appealing vision of an immigrant cuisine served with soul by a talented chef. What a disappointment. Too often, it’s the theme park North End that arrives on the plate, not the genuine thing.

Devra First can be reached at dfirst@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.

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GENNARO’S 5 NORTH SQUARE

5 North Square, Boston. 617-720-1050. www.5northsquare.com. All major credit cards accepted.

Not wheelchair accessible (two steps at entry).

Prices Appetizers $10-$14.50. Entrees $16-$27.

Family-style dishes $28-$36. Desserts $7-$8.50.

Hours Sun-Thu 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri-Sat 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m.

Noise level Conversation easy.

What to order Manicotti Italo-Americani, short ribs and mozzarella raviolini, cod in bianco.

Extraordinary | Excellent | Good

Fair | (No stars) Poor

Ratings

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