Simplicity shines at hands of adept chef

Paolo Laboa learned to cook in his native Italy, where his pesto recipe won the World Pesto Championship in Genoa in 2008. He was executive chef at a widely praised San Francisco restaurant, Farina, before coming to Beverly, where he’s been the chef at Prides Osteria since it opened three months ago. 

“Simplicity is my goal,” says Laboa. “I don’t want to overpower my recipes with tons of sauce. If there are five ingredients, I want you to taste all of them.”

Pride Osteria’s dining room (a second room is a bar with tables) is plain and utilitarian. The evening we visited, the wooden tabletops had fresh daisies in vases — you wouldn’t expect fake flowers in a place that prides itself on organic, farm-to-table ingredients.

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“I’d say Paolo doesn’t accept 30 to 40 percent of the deliveries we get,” says owner Michael Magner, who also owns Prides Deli and Pizzeria in Beverly’s Prides Crossing neighborhood. “If the fish isn’t fresh, he sends it back. It’s a nightmare for the sous-chef.”

Compared with other restaurants in the area, prices are a bit on the steep side. Fortunately, many of the dishes are available in half portions. The menu is a single sheet of plain paper. There’s no point in anything fancier; Laboa changes it daily. Even the restaurant’s website is hard pressed to keep up. A dish made with “local rabbit” that we noticed online wasn’t on the menu when we visited the same day.

Not that we’re complaining. This is a place with no shortage of unusual and highly tasty food. We started with a thin-crust Ligurian pizza known as focaccia di Recco, made with unleavened bread and draped with big layers of prosciutto ($16, or $14 without the meat). Underneath was a generous smear of warm, creamy stracchino cheese.

Also unusual was the tagliere del contadino, or farm board, a selection of cured meats, cheese, and crisp bread with the texture of fried dough ($14 and $24). It arrived on a weathered board that Magner salvaged from an old barn, he told us later.

Our server impressed us by explaining each of the items in the assortment. We didn’t follow everything she said, but venison hips stuck in our memory. The cheese had a slightly fruity sweetness, from the wine must that it was aged with, our server explained, hence its nickname, “drunken cheese.”

Naturally, we ordered Chef Paolo’s award-winning pesto, which took the form of a simple pansotti, or triangular pasta stuffed with spinach, Swiss chard, and ricotta, and served with hand-crushed-walnut pesto ($10 and $18). The pasta was papery thin, and the sauce creamy smooth and fragrant without being too garlicky.

Roasted monkfish raviolini in a spicy white wine broth with shrimp ($18) was another treat. The seafood was juicy and flavorful (unlike so many nondescript ravioli fillings). The numerous small shrimp were served Old World style, heads and tails attached.

We finished with a pair of excellent desserts (both $8): chocolate crème caramel with a biscotti crust, and, even better, meringue semifriddo, a chewy cross between cake and gelato. The semifriddo’s flavor had a surprising hint of fresh basil, and it came with a small pitcher of semisweet chocolate sauce.

Since its opening, the restaurant has served chicken just once, says Magner: “It was part of a catering order.”

His restaurant isn’t antichicken, he says, “but when you come here, we want you to experience things you don’t eat at home all the time.”