We all know we are supposed to love fall in New England, but that new chill in the air can make us just a trifle grouchy. Which is why the reviewing crew leaped at the prospect of heading to an Italian restaurant in downtown Lowell. Warm sauces and steaming portions of pasta were exactly what was needed to ease the transition to cooler nights.
Fortunato’s did not disappoint, although our party was, unfortunately, seated near the door, which made for some chattering teeth before we were able to dig into the main courses.
The eight-year-old eatery occupies the edge of Palmer and Middle streets; the restaurant wraps itself around the corner, with a bar at one end separated by large windows from the dining area. The bar area currently features some fabulous little paintings by Lowell resident turned Parisian Linda McCluskey, while the décor of the main dining room is a bit of an afterthought, with a mismatch of paintings (a landscape here, impressionistic design there), hung on dun- and sand-colored walls.
The place was crowded on the off night we visited, a sign of devoted clientele — even more remarkable because the
We started off with eggplant roulades ($8), which were grilled slices of eggplant wrapped around fresh mozzarella and basil, topped with tomato sauce and Romano cheese, then baked. Eggplant can be tricky if it’s too tough — and these put up a fight, while the sauce was a trifle harsh on the tongue. We also tried the pasta nachos ($8), which were fried pasta chips topped with crushed meatballs, tomato sauce, and mozzarella cheese. It produced quite a discussion — one side arguing why go to an Italian place for nachos, while the other put up a passionate defense of the crispy, salty pasta chips and the fresh sauce with the accents of ground meat, which hit the spot and took off the chill. The defense shouted down the prosecution, even though their mouths were full.
Fortunato’s has an extensive menu of traditional Italian fare, including penne broccoli and chicken ($13), fettuccini primavera and chicken ($13), and veal and eggplant parmigiana ($21 and $9). You can also get steaks, pork chops, and seafood.
We opted to try to the special, the Portobello mushroom ravioli ($16), which was smothered in a creamy onion and mushroom sauce, little packets of tangy goodness. Because we love risotto, we also got a side of the creamy mushroom risotto ($6), which had the all the comfort of mac ’n’ cheese, albeit with more sophistication. This and the ravioli produced the comment that Fortunato’s really knows how to treat a mushroom.
The fruiti di mare ($16) features shrimp, scallops, and mussels, sautéed with peppers and onions in a smoky red sauce with a decided peppery afterburn; the dish warmed us up, although it was served on linguini, not angel-hair pasta as indicated on the menu. We searched for crab meat (also promised by the menu), although we can’t swear we didn’t just wolf it down with the satisfyingly chewy noodles.
The picatta, which we ordered with chicken ($13) — you can also get it with veal ($12) or haddock ($15) — was served with sautéed artichoke hearts, tomatoes, garlic, and capers over fettuccine; it was a pleasant, if not outstanding, dish.
To finish, we tried the tiramisu ($6.50), a splendid blend of cream and cake with streaks of chocolate and a wallop of rum nestled at the bottom of the glass for a finish. Less successful was the Oreo cookie cheesecake ($7), which had a nice taste but off-putting gelatinous texture.