The best seat at Prezza is not in the dining room or at the bar. It’s next to the restrooms in the back of the house. That’s where you witness the action coming from the kitchen. White plates fly by carrying mounds of pasta topped with sauce so red, it appears to be glowing. A roasted fish, with its head propped up against its filleted body, is shuttled to a table. Next up is a massive pork chop that looks positively prehistoric.
This is the scene Anthony Caturano set out to create 13 years ago when, as he explained in a recent note on the restaurant’s Facebook page, he opened Prezza as a 25-year-old chef with big dreams and little money. Today Prezza stands as a stalwart in the North End, a neighborhood where you can barely pace 10 feet before stumbling upon another upscale Italian restaurant with pressed tablecloths and attentive servers.
The question becomes, how do you stand out? Not far from Prezza, on the corner of Hanover and Fleet streets, is Giacomo’s, which is so busy that lines routinely snake down the block. (“It’s cheap and tiny,’’ our waiter surmises about the competition.) Prezza can get crowded, too, but it maintains an air of refinery, right down to the dining room bathed in cream-colored hues and art displayed with gallery lighting.
Its appearance looks especially fresh these days after a kitchen fire in July shut down the place for six months. Prezza reopened in early January with a revamped menu, but with the layout and decor mostly as they were.
It’s back to business as usual. On our visits the service is impeccable, to the point that we wonder one evening if our waiter has other tables. He does. But when someone delivers the first courses without his knowledge, he’s visibly irked. An appetizer portion of the lobster fra diavolo, meant to be eaten as the entree, arrives with the rest of the starters. He is not pleased with the slight snafu, offering to put in something else for the main course.
With nods to Mediterranean influences, the menu splits its entrees into two categories: from the oven and from the wood grill. The roasted branzino is a marvel, both of taste and presentation. It’s essentially a whole fish, but free of most of the bones and splayed open as moist fillets. Next to it is the head, eyes intact, which is purely theater — and clever.
That’s also how you could describe the “Ravioli di Ouvo,’’ which can be ordered as an appetizer or entree. It’s presented like its inspiration: a single raviolo that resembles an egg over easy. A fork down the middle unleashes its creamy center of ricotta and yolk. It’s so pretty you almost don’t want to eat it. Likewise, an appetizer of crispy shrimp consists of two large prawns, their heads on, resting on a bed of Italian slaw that plays off the spiciness of the shrimp.
The aforementioned crispy pork chop is indeed big enough to elicit a “Flintstones’’ joke from our table. You could imagine Fred Flintstone chomping on it for lunch. It’s also delicious — an inch-thick cut that’s succulent and gives a nice crunch against the vinegar peppers, potatoes, and roasted onions that come with it.
Other times good ideas fall victim to clumsy execution. Crispy zucchini flowers taste of little more than their deep-fried exteriors, and homemade meatballs are a distracting hodgepodge of beef, sausage, and ribs. The lobster fra diavolo seems to have lost its “fra diavolo’’ by the time it reaches our table. The sauce itself is rich and comforting, but it’s not packing much heat. The lobster meat isn’t exactly plentiful either and seems like an afterthought in an otherwise standard dish.
Like many of its neighbors, Prezza is serious about its wine list. It’s 32 pages deep, with a table of contents that breaks it down into categories such as wines by the glass, half bottles, and countries of origin. As expected, you can go crazy and plunk down hundreds of dollars for a top bottle. Instead, we keep it simple one evening with a respectable $60 bottle of amarone.
The cocktails, too, beckon with a mix of standards and froufrou potions tailor-made for tourists and those with a sweet tooth (tiramisu martini, anyone?). A Pazzo Negroni is a refreshing twist on the classic: Hendrick’s gin, Campari, sweet vermouth, and prosecco. Order it up. And then there’s the Ultimate Dirty Italian martini, an odd concoction served with a plump hot pepper stuffed with provolone and prosciutto. If you like your martini with an oily film (from the prosciutto), have at it.
A dessert sampler is suited for sharing, but in truth, after a meal heavy on carbs, we scarcely have room for more. But Prezza does a fine job with the final course, starting with the zeppole, which our waiter describes as an upgrade on fried dough. That’s selling them short. The zeppole are essentially delicate little doughnuts that pair well with the accompanying chocolate sauce and salted pecans. Limoncello cheesecake is meant for people who claim they don’t like cheesecake, this critic included. Prezza’s take on the staple is superb — uniformly creamy and soft with just a hint of crunch from a biscotti crust.
That’s our last bite one evening, right around 11 p.m. As we disperse into the street, we laugh about the feast we just had, admitting we’re uncomfortably full but grateful for the various courses that got us there. Surely Caturano’s Italian grandmother, whose town the restaurant is named after, would be pleased.