by Damien DiPaola
Courtesy of Scene Magazine
This cozy, sexy, upbeat Italian ristorante is named and decorated after the famous and very mysterious Strega Liqueur. Strega is a delicate liqueur with digestive qualities. It is made up of a number of herbs such as mint, fennel, and saffron (the world’s most expensive spice) which gives it a bright yellow color. It is also known as “the witch’s love potion”. They say that Strega is an aphrodisiac, you be the judge.
Walking into Strega for the first time, one may feel as if they crashed a family gathering. Don’t turn around and leave, give it a second, pazienza (patience).You will be welcomed as if you belong, as if they were waiting for you, the guest of honor. People are standing, seated, walking around, sipping martinis, and having a great time. There is a group of middle aged Italian-Americans harmonizing in perfect rhythm at the end of the bar. The waiters are hugging and giving the traditional two-cheek kiss to the guests. The hostess smiles and works the room, making sure that all the guests are happy. The bartender seems to know everyone and what they are drinking. People are pointing to the TV screens and reciting their favorite line from their favorite gangster movie. Did I walk into a private party? No, I didn’t. This is the Strega atmosphere. The room is very warm, full of old school charm and with flair of modern Italian design. The colors and the trim on the walls resemble the colors of the very mysterious Strega Liqueur’s bottle.
It took me three visits to sample all the fare and to sample the out-worldly atmosphere. First and foremost the two best waiters, hands-down, in all of Boston are Carlo and Bruno. Not only do they know the entire menu and all the right wines, they can also coerce Salvatore, the chef, to whip up special dishes that aren’t on the menu (a great way to impress your guests).
Salvatore Firicano, born and trained in Sicily, is that rarity; the Italian born Italian restaurant chef. His homemade focaccia, (soft, oily, salty, and pleasantly yeasty, accompanied with an assortment of olives soaked in extra virgin olive oil) alone is worth a trip to Strega. An amuse-bouche of smoked mozzarella wrapped in Prosciutto di Parma and freshly roasted red peppers reminded me how good and simple real Italian flavors are meant to be. Gamberi alla Grand Marnier, expertly sautéed, firm large gulf shrimp and very fresh flash seared sea scallops were served with a Grand-Marnier demi-glaze. The sauce was thick, citrusy, syrupy and clung to the seafood. It was absolutely delicious. This dish is not on the menu, however, ask and you shall receive.
The Rollatini di Nico, from what I gathered, are Rosetta’s (Nicky’s mom) special stuffed eggplant rolls that Nicky grew up on. Light, fresh whipped ricotta and spinach, with a delicate eggplant wrapper, then finished with a sweet San Marzano tomato sauce and sprinkled with Parmigiano made this popular version of “Stuffed eggplant” much better than all the pretenders’ versions. Il Tegamino, a casserole full of fresh mussels and clams with a flavorful, ocean savory white wine brodino, and fresh Mediterranean herbs, once again, show that old-school Italian cooking can’t be beat. The clam and mussel meat remained attached to one side of the shell, proving that they were indeed, very fresh. Diner beware: when the meat is attached to both sides of the shell, you have a bad piece of shellfish. That doesn’t happen at Strega.
Hand-made Porcini Gnocchi, potato and porcini mushroom pasta dumplings were light in texture, happily bouncy to the bite, deep in flavor, and served with an amazing black truffle, cream and thyme sauce spiked with truffle oil. The generous little bites of truffle were eagerly anticipated and thoroughly appreciated. Risotto Frutti Di Mare, al dente Arborio rice with shrimp, scallops, clams, mussels, and calamari gave off very clean flavors at the start, followed by slight and tasty undertones of thin sliced garlic. As the flavors developed on the palate, the spicy tomato sauce lingered toward the end, giving compound “sapori” that made the dish ultra fascinating-Fantastico!
I rarely order a simple Veal Marsala at any restaurant. Marsala’s, Piccata’s, Francese’s, all dishes that have been used and abused by Italian pretenders. However, knowing that Salvatore and Nicky are both Southern Italians, I figured I’d take a shot. It was a great calculated risk, I hit gold. The veal was fork tender and had that subtle, fresh, nutty flavor. The sauce was rich and thick, salty and sweet, like caramel on a sundae. Of course the boys at Strega use real Marsala, imported from Sicily. One night the fab waiters suggested the Parmigiano Encrusted Rack of Lamb. Why not, I’ll follow Bruno and Carlo to the end of the culinary world. The tender, succulent chops were served medium rare, with a light and creamy gorgonzola sauce and roasted walnuts. The balance between the strong and pungent sauce, the deep and full lamb, and the sweet, slightly nutty Parmigiano, made for a complex yet satisfying mouth feel. I found myself tearing off whatever meat was left on the bones and then using the bare bones to scoop up the rest of the sauce.
You say you can’t get a good steak in the North End? You can. La Fiorentina a Prime Aged 20 oz. Porterhouse, prepared in the traditional Florentine manner. Sea salt, fresh cracked pepper, and olive oil are rubbed all over the meat. The steak is then grilled and served with lightly dressed, fresh, spicy, and leafy arugola with shaved Parmigiano. My steak was rich in its classic simplicity. True unmasked flavors of aged steak were thoroughly enjoyed. A bite of steak, a bite of salad, and a bite of Parmigiano, methodical yet scrumptious.
The personality and charm of Nicky Varrano attracts all kinds of celebrities, personalities, and local big-wigs. Mr. Varrano has trained his staff well, they are as gracious, hospitable, and warm as he is. I ran into Kevin Millar, former Red Sox and current Oriole, at 57 Nobu in Manhattan. The first thing he said to me was that he was celebrating his wife’s birthday at Strega the following week. I asked him, “Why are you coming all the way to Boston to celebrate, nothing good in Baltimore?” His reply was, “Nicky makes us all feel like family, there’s no other place I would rather be than Strega”.