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DINING OUT

Authentic Italian, nicely done

Grappa
71 Elm St., Watertown
Telephone: 617-924-2941
Hours: 5 to 10 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday
Charge cards: Visa, MasterCard
Reservations accepted
Accessible to the handicapped

Its incongruous setting, a modest wood-frame structure tucked among industrial buildings and across from a Watertown Mall parking area, gives the restaurant a hint of mystery before you even get near the front door.

But the rich purple paint and the strings of tiny white lights framing the covered patio let you know you've found Grappa, which opened in December after refurbishing the space occupied for years by the Villa Cantina Italia.

The tiny foyer provides a view of the entire restaurant -- a square room with space for a dozen or so tables, a cozy bar with two stools, the kitchen visible over a half-wall topped by shiny metal. Walls are painted in more wine-invoking hues and trimmed with wood. And when the weather warms up, proprietor Shelley Matarazzo said, the patio will have three tables for dining al fresco.

The attentive serving staff was quick to take a drink order and to bring a loaf of crusty garlic bread while we chatted and enjoyed the Italian tenor on the sound system .

Grappa's menu is simple, two pages of familiar Italian offerings with nothing over $18, and there were no specials to complicate our decisions on this night. It has an interesting wine list of perhaps two dozen choices, with glasses for $7 or $8 and bottles from about $20 to about $45. The bar offers a full range of beverages.

Thinking we needed to draw the line somewhere, we bypassed the choice of three soups and started with a dish of stuffed mushrooms ($7), four large caps broiled just enough to crisp the top layer of savory stuffing while leaving them tender and juicy. Simple, and very nicely done.

The garden salad ($5) is a bowl of iceberg lettuce (no sign of healthy dark greens) with slices of red onion and chunks of tomato, splashed with the distinctive house Italian dressing. The Caprese salad ($6) featured alternating slices of creamy mozzarella and thick tomato, sprinkled with basil and drizzled with olive oil. Light and satisfying.

Chicken dishes dominate the entrees , but there are also a half-dozen veal preparations and a handful of pasta and seafood offerings.

The scampi ($16) was a generous portion of fresh, large shrimp, tender and flavorful after being sauteed with wine and garlic, served over spaghetti. The sauce was delicious, especially when sopped up with remnants of the garlic bread, the pasta perfectly al dente.

For diners stymied by a classic dilemma, Grappa's kitchen will add a layer of eggplant to the chicken parmigiana ($14, $15 for the combo, served on top of pasta), creating a wonderful mix of flavors under a cap of lightly browned cheese that means comfort food for so many.

Another delightful dish was the chicken saltimbocca ($17), two large pieces of pounded cutlet rolled around slices of prosciutto and provolone and browned with mushrooms in a rich wine sauce. The combination of tender chicken, ham, and melted cheese in each mouthful made it difficult to save at least some for the next day, but luckily the portion was too much for one sitting. The saltimbocca also is accompanied by a choice of pasta , but for this dish it is served on the side, and the dollop of marinara atop the penne was a shade bland.

Grappa also serves a good cup of coffee, and both of the dessert offerings, tiramisu ($5) and cannoli ($4), somehow managed to be light and rich at the same time. Gelato ($5) and sorbet ($6) have recently been added to the list.

It all added up to a very satisfying meal, we agreed during our consultation afterward in the mall's parking lot. The reason it took place outside was also the only discordant note of our meal -- as the Saturday night crowd rolled in, the noise level kept rising until we were straining to conduct a yell-based conversation across our table for four.

Asked about it later, Matarazzo, who previously owned Figlia in Newton Center, said one other customer had recently mentioned the noise level, and she promised to look into possible solutions. If her success in creating Grappa's dishes and décor is any indication, we'll be having a quiet chat about it over dinner during our next visit.

TERRY FITZGERALD

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