Brunello Bistro offers an enjoyable North End-style dining experience without the hassle of getting to Boston.
In fact, the biggest difference between this new eatery in Somerville’s Winter Hill and a trendy Hanover Street trattoria may be the welcome availability of off-street parking.
The sophisticated restaurant, which evolved earlier this year from a café-style establishment called Bread and Company, offers an innovative, contemporary take on Italian fare. The ingredients are top-notch, and the homemade pasta is a revelation to anyone who has always eaten noodles from a box.
The freshness of the ingredients becomes apparent soon after sitting down, when warm bread and homemade pesto are delivered to the table. The pesto packs a punch, tasting like the distillation of an entire basil plant. Made on site, it differs from one batch to the next — sometimes thick and chunky, sometimes thinned with more olive oil. On one visit we actually had to wait for the pesto because a new batch was being whipped up out back. It was well worth the delay.
The appetizers we sampled were outstanding. The delicious and unusual baked Gouda ($15), a thin slab of cheese wrapped in crispy phyllo dough and served atop mixed greens with sliced strawberries, blueberries, candied walnuts, and a balsamic drizzle, was generous enough for two to share.
The stuffed eggplant ($12) didn’t present as attractively — it was essentially a free-form blob — but was extremely tasty, with bright marinara, soothing ricotta, and dollops of the intense house pesto.
The star entrees are those involving the homemade pasta. Tender and fresh, it elevates pasta from mere backdrop to the main attraction.
The simple pasta primavera ($20) was sublime, a soft gemelli that seemed better matched to the chunky vegetables than traditional spaghetti. The use of seasonal produce, such as summer squash and broccoli rabe, in addition to the more common zucchini and tomatoes, was a nice touch. My one quibble: The pieces of broccoli rabe were too large, making them awkward to eat.
Built around fat homemade rigatoni, the rosemary chicken pasta ($23) had chunks of tender chicken, cubes of firm pancetta, tomatoes, asparagus, and shavings of fresh parmesan. A sauce thoroughly infused with the rich flavor of rosemary pulled the dish together. The chicken and vegetables were nicely done, but I found myself most drawn to the delectable rigatoni.
The potato gnocchi ($24), served with lobster in a saffron-infused sauce, were soft, fresh, and delightfully varied in shape and size. The dish included a lobster tail cut in half and chunks of lobster throughout, as well as a sprig of fresh basil. (Brunello must buy basil by the crate!) Like the other pasta dishes, the sauce was flavorful but light and brothy, rather than a heavy cream that might overwhelm the other subtle flavors in the dish.
The seafood risotto ($29) was perfectly al dente, its firm texture contrasting nicely with chewy scallops and shrimp. This dish was warm and comforting, and easy to make quick work of.
Everything on Brunello’s dessert tray looked beautiful, but overall I was least impressed by this course. The lemon flan topped with passion fruit ($9) was less a flan than a dense custard, and the flavor of passion fruit didn’t mingle particularly well with the tart citrus notes. The xango cheesecake ($9.75) — somewhat akin to cannoli shells stuffed with a cheesecake filling — was humdrum. Both desserts won points for dramatic presentation, including garnishes of fresh berries.
Service was generally attentive, with appetizers and entrees arriving quickly even when the restaurant was crowded. The waitstaff pitched in to ensure that water glasses and breadbaskets never emptied. But on both visits the pace of service seemed to lag a bit toward dessert and delivery of the check.
The décor is elegant yet warm, dominated by earth tones and dimly lit. A fireplace flickers in one corner, and a bright, urbane bar gleams in another. The building’s humble origins as a Bickford’s have been totally — and impressively — obliterated. Once inside, you wouldn’t guess you were on a commercial strip in Somerville, except for the glow of pharmacies and take-out joints through the sheer curtains.
Dinner at Brunello doesn’t come cheap — much like dinner in the North End. With a shared appetizer, a dessert, and maybe a drink, dinner for two with tip nears $100. It’s not an eatery for everyday dining, but for a special, once-in-a-while meal, I found it well worth the price of admission.