Newbury Street is to Boston what Via del Corso is to Rome or rue Faubourg St. Honore is to Paris. A shopping street, yes, but more than that. Newbury, like the European models, is the avenue of dreams, the place to see and be seen. Every night, especially summer nights, a show of style and convivality unfurls along its length.
The blocks between Exeter on down to Massachusetts Avenue especially attract the young and hip and those who want to be near them. On a recent warm weeknight, the patio seating in front of Armani Cafe is overflowing and the crowds fill the sidewalk. The scene has a carnival-like mood -- cellphones ringing, babies pushed in strollers crying, friends greeting one another, and occasionally a car with loud music playing rolling slowly down the street. It's fun but verges on the chaotic.
I duck into Piattini, tiny, cool, and quiet after the hullabaloo outside. With its hammered-copper tabletops and cozy banquettes, the cafe seems a refuge as I look over the menu. Of course, by the time the rest of my party arrives, there are calls to move outside to the patio, much smaller and less crowded than Armani's nearby.
Piattini, which opened about three years ago, is a term for "little plates," as owner Josephine Oliviero tells me later in a phone interview. Her mother called her that when she was a child, the youngest of 10, Oliviero says, because she was a picky eater. After visiting Italy years later and discovering enotecas, the Italian wine bars where small tapas-like plates are offered with drinks, she decided to use the name and the concept in her restaurant.
The menu, under chef John Cardoza, offers 21 hot and cold appetizer-size plates as well as salads and larger pastas and main courses. The style might be called pan-Italian, with a lot of tomato-cream sauces. That means the smaller piattinis are the gems here. Eating a small portion of something rich can be comforting; too much more would ruin your chances of looking good on the street. Piattini's wine list has a good selection, especially in Italian vintages, with some reasonable prices and many offerings by the glass, as well as little cards that describe each wine.
Oliviero and her chef follow the Italian sensibility of running with what's in season. This year's early arugula has been especially beautiful, and it appears in many dishes as a backdrop. It gets a starring role in a salad of young leaves, gently dressed and tossed with chunks of artichoke hearts, tomatoes, and shavings of Parmesan. Another salad, called Tuscan, overreaches with mixed greens too limp with vinaigrette and so many other ingredients -- prosciutto, roasted red peppers, marinated artichokes, and capers -- that it's difficult to tell it's a salad.
Plump sauteed shrimp on toasted bread make a lovely bruschetta -- the toast has been lightly brushed with olive oil, and the chopped tomatoes and basil meld well with the sweet shrimp. The dish is messy to eat but very satisfying. A hot piattini of eggplant layered with smoked mozzarella and sundried tomatoes is slathered with a truffle cream sauce. The flavor, savory and rich, has a soothing quality, although the sauce threatens to overwhelm the other elements.
Tuna carpaccio has the right pieces -- paper-thin fish, capers, thin slices of crostini. But the tuna is dry and tasteless, ruining the effect. Pastas, too, have ups and downs. Butternut squash with chicken, gorgonzola, and an apple cider sauce doesn't sound appealing -- too much, too sweet, too Thanksgiving-y. Instead, the flavors meld. The dish, while it might be unusual in Italy where chicken and pasta don't usually meet, tastes fine. And another of spinach fettuccine with green beans and pesto is simple and clean, just right for a steamy evening. However, a ravioli filled with artichokes and mascarpone comes in tomato cream sauce that tastes a little like Chef Boyardee and completely masks thefilling.
Specials on several evenings seem to be an exuberant excuse for using as many types of shellfish as possible in one dish. A risotto in spicy tomato sauce piled high with mussels, clams, and shrimp scores -- all the pieces working toward a cohesive and appealing package. But another evening, we order a seafood "antipasto" that turns out to be a very big dish of mussels, scallops, shrimp, artichokes, olives, and slices of salami over greens (really buried under everything else). Prosciutto wrapped around mozzarella is also tucked into the big bowl. And oddest of all are other bundles of smoked salmon around more smoked cheese. It's an impressive-looking dish but has many more taste sensations than make sense.
If Newbury Street is all about the show, though, Piattini holds a special niche. One Saturday evening, we settle in at a table next to a family group. The teen boy next to me starts explaining the appetizers, and his father chimes in with his favorites. Two of the members of the foursome next to us are explaining to a young woman why they always return here. A family with young children is down the way, and on the other side of the room is an extended family group with both elder and much younger members. Owner Oliviero says Piattini is a neighborhood restaurant. That would have sounded unlikely to me on a street where the rent is high and the scene constantly changing, but the community feeling is evident when you're there.