This is the fourth restaurant post in the series, Welcome to My New Hood, focused on restaurants in the neighborhood between Harvard Square and Porter Square. Other posts in this series: Rafiki Bistro (no longer open), Super Fusion Sushi, and Temple Bar.
"Why Giulia?" we asked.
Giulia is the name of a street in Italy where Chef Michael Pagliarini's brother works.
In fact, there are little hints of Chef Pagliarini's Italian roots all over the restaurant, from the generous sprinkling of Italian words all over the menu (we had to ask several times, "what does this mean?") to the traditional Italian cookies offered for dessert - baked by his mom - who learned these recipes from friends in Italy.
If you haven't heard, Chef Pagliarini, who previously worked at Via Matta in the Back Bay, has just opened up a new Italian restaurant in Cambridge.
There has been much pent up demand for this place. In the past, people regularly bemoaned the lack of Italian restaurants in Cambridge, especially on this stretch between Harvard Square and Porter Square where gastropubs rule. Sure, you can head up north to Gran Gusto (excellent place, by the way) or to Huron Village and check out Trattoria Pulcinella . . . but for a place that's really close and convenient?
As you must know by now, Bryan loves fresh pasta. When we heard that Chef Pagliarini would be making fresh pasta daily right at the chef's table, we absolutely could not wait for this place to open.
Last week it finally opened on Tuesday. We immediately called them up and made a reservation for four (plus a baby!).
The inside is warm and cozy, with a long bar (yay, I love eating at the bar) and a chef's table at the back which functions as a pasta-making table by day. It has a similar layout as the old Rafiki Bistro, but it's much more spruced up and, frankly, looks much nicer.
The restaurant was surprisingly accommodating for my friends' newborn (only 4 weeks old!). They have a nice table that's right next to the window sort of separated from everyone else. We arrived right when the restaurant opened (5:30PM) and my friends were able to keep the stroller with the sleeping baby right next to our table the entire dinner.
The menu is divided up into five sections: Sfitzi, which are like little bites, cost from $3-$5. Antipasti ($10-$16) are appetizers, and include dishes such as a burrata salad, salumi plate, crudo, and bruschetta (just to name a few). Then there are various Pasta 'della Nostra Tabola', which are fresh pasta dishes made in-house (right on top of that loooooong chef's table) which are "primo" sized (starter portion) and cost between $15-$22. The Meat & Fish section contains various cooked meat and fish entrees ($18-$42), and then there are Contorni (sides), which cost $5-$7. Desserts come on a separate menu and includes dessert cordials, sweets, and cheeses.
One of my favorite bites of the entire evening came first. The Warm Semolina Cakes with Lardo ($5) was fantastic. Soft, light, fluffy, yet super moist inside, these bite-sized cakes were topped with a paper thin piece of lardo, which virtually melted on top of the warm cake. It was absolutely fantastic.
The Tiny Clams 'in brodetto' ($16) came cooked in a fragrant broth with pancetta, garbanzo beans and spinach. The flavors for this dish were excellent, beautifully aromatic and well seasoned. We couldn't help but soak up the broth with our bread in order to savor the flavor a bit longer.
'Carne Cruda' crostini ($11) was beef tartare served with mini-toast (crostini) and pickled, roasted, and fresh "allium" (garlic, shallots, the like). Unfortunately, this dish was a bit disappointing. The beef pieces were just a bit larger than we liked, and the beef itself was slightly undersalted and not particularly flavorful. The accompanying mix of pickled vegetables was OK, but a bit too sweet for my tastes.
The Burrata di Puglia ($14) was served with charred peppers, golden raisins, and pine nuts. The ingredients were definitely good quality, and the overall combination of flavors was solid, though nothing particularly special.
We've been enjoying some incredible salumi at home lately, so Bryan was really keen on trying the Assorted Salumi ($15), which consisted of mortadella, soppressata, fincchiona, and wild boar.
Overall, the salumi plate was OK ("it's fine" according to Bryan), but probably not something I would order again. Bryan and I both enjoy the salumi we buy at the local gourmet market a lot more. To be fair, at the market we get to try a bunch before picking which to buy, which makes it a lot easier to get the ones that we love.
The staff was a bit confused about the salumi. At first they indicated that it was "local", but then affirmed that it was from Italy. When they served it, they were unable to distinguish between two of the types (they looked really similar), and told us we should be able to find out once we tasted it.
The fresh pasta is really, really good.
We love the fact that they make the pasta daily on that huge chef's table. Nothing beats homemade pasta, and all of theirs are excellent.
I loved the unusual Spelt Fusilli with Roasted Mushrooms ($15). Loaded with fresh herbs, this simple pasta is tossed with butter and grana padano. The spelt pasta adds a lovely nuttiness to the dish, which was excellent. Of course, the texture of the pasta was great - very dense and chewy. This was definitely one of the favorites at the table.
The Boston Bluefish Puttanesca ($16) was quite an unusual dish, made with with maltagliati (a type of pasta), capers, anchovy, tomato, and hot chilies. I personally found the very strong bluefish flavor to be a bit weird. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't my favorite flavor either. My friend thought the strongly flavored sauce worked well to stand up to the strongly flavored bluefish.
The Papardelle with Wild Boar came with black trumpet mushrooms, juniper, and aged parmigiano. Again, the homemade pasta texture was excellent, and the flavors of the dish were perfectly balanced and really came together nicely. The wild boar was soft and tender, and everything was executed well. This was probably Bryan's favorite pasta dish.
The Bucatini all'Amatriciana was my least favorite of the bunch. Even though I fell in love with this dish in Rome, this version was not nearly as flavorful. The tomato sauce was a bit too acidic and lacked a deep, sweet "tomato" flavor. Several of us thought it was a bit too salty, though one of us really liked it because it had a nice, real spicy kick. Of course, the texture of the bucatini was perfect - I just wished the sauce had something more . . .
The Brussels Sprouts, Orange Zest, and Hot Peppers ($5) was another one of my favorite dishes (it's just a side dish). How come I never thought of roasting Brussels sprouts with hot peppers? It is ingenious and so good. One of my friends didn't like how charred the sprouts were, (he thought the food was burnt), but I personally really enjoy sprouts when they are a bit charred, so I didn't mind one bit.
For $5, I would totally get this again.
Secondi - Meat & Fish
Rohan Duck Breast ($32) came with Umbrian lentils, cippolini, and pomegranate saba. This duck was quite fatty, and because the skin was not scored, none of the fat was rendered. This resulted in pieces duck that were attached to a rather thick and chewy chunk of fat. According to my friend, "the fat to meat ratio is off." Bryan thought the flavor of the duck was fine, though not particularly memorable. We did love the lentils, which were extremely flavorful and had a nice, al dente texture.
The Grilled Branzino ($24) was roasted with anise and potatoes and topped with sea urchin. The fish was perfectly seared and we loved the crispy skin on top. The fish itself was also nice and tender. We wished for more uni (that little dollop on top was not quite enough for the whole piece of fish). Other than that, the dish was pretty good. Solid execution, quality ingredients, and overall good flavors.
House Made Lamb Sausage ($18) came on top of a pile of broccoli rabe, pepperonata, and "gigante" beans. These beans were definitely huge ("gigante"!) and were really tasty, reminding me a bit of starchy mashed potatoes. I loved the flavors of the beans together with the vegetables underneath. The lamb itself was a bit salty to eat on its own, though it went well with the vegetables and beans.
Sicilian Style Swordfish ($24) came with autumn vegetable caponata and fresh oregano. Although I would have loved for them to cook the swordfish just a hair less, it was still executed reasonably well, better than most restaurants. The fish was tender yet fully cooked through. Though I found the caponata to be a bit too sweet, overall the dish was OK.
The server highly recommended the Cheese Plate ($14), which comes with these gorgeous homemade tninly sliced crackers that are filled with all sorts of goodies, like almonds, raisins, and walnuts. The crackers were absolutely fabulous. They were so delicate yet so flavorful at the same time. I longed for more than three slices to go with my cheese, which were all pretty enjoyable.
The Cookie Plate consists of cookies made by the chef's mother, who learned how to make these while she was in Italy. These were authentic and solid, though definitely quite sweet for my tastes. I can only nibble a bit before I need a big swig of coffee!
Overall the food is very good at Giulia. Their strength is definitely the homemade pastas, which have excellent texture and really nice flavors. The starters were mixed but there were definitely some standouts (e.g., the clams). We fell in love with the semolina cakes (I hope he never takes that off the menu), but were a bit disappointed with the beef tartare and uninspired by the salumi plate. Except for the duck, we really enjoyed the "secondi" main dishes as well. All the fish dishes were executed well, with quality ingredients and nice flavors.
If you're a huge pasta fan and you live in the area, you'll be thrilled that we finally have some really nice pasta options right here in Cambridge. Instead of heading out to Boston for a nice Italian dinner out, you can just walk down the street.
It's actually quite expensive to eat at Giulia's. Although the individual menu items don't cost that much, expect to order at least a few courses (if not more) to equal a regular meal elsewhere. In fact, the server told us that the menu portions are designed to allow diners to eat all five (!) courses.
I couldn't believe it at first, but evidence speaks volumes. Four of us ordered two "sfitzi" (small bites), four "antipasti" (appetizers), four pastas, four entrees, a cheese plate, and a dessert. We ate everything, and though the women felt a bit stuffed, the men felt just right.
I think the "antipasti" are actually reasonably portions (comparable to an appetizer at any other restaurant), though I agree the pastas are a bit too small to really count as a regular entree. Bryan definitely thought he needed to order two pastas dishes if he wanted to eat it as a dinner, which means spending around $30 just for the pasta entree.
The place is priced like a higher-end Italian restaurant in the North End, but we're not quite sure if the ambiance, service, and location quite match the prices. I guess time will tell if this neighborhood is willing to pay those prices on a regular basis.
Nevertheless, I'm still really excited to have such quality food in the neighborhood. I'm hoping they think about offering more reasonably priced weekday deals like many of the other local restaurants (both Bergamot and Ten Tables offer a 3-course $39 deal, which is really nice). It would definitely incentivize locals like me to stop by more often on random weeknights for a more "casual" dinner at the bar.
Welcome to the neighborhood, Giulia. We're anxious looking forward to seeing what other cool pasta dishes you'll dream up next.
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