REVIEW: Carmen

A Sexy Florentine Hideaway

33 North Square • Boston, MA 02113 • 617-742-6421

by Damien DiPaola
Courtesy of Scene Magazine

When you walk into the warm, cozy, candlelit, and very romantic space, you feel very relaxed, you are hit with “La Dolce Vita”. The walls, the floors, the 25 or so seats, and the food all bleed Florentine. Carmen is molto sexy, and is, quite honestly, one of the more romantic spots in the city. Owners Jeff and Carmen Malloy built Carmen using inspiration from their travels to Florence. The cozy bar area seats six people and these, to me, are the best seats in the house. The back bar is visually and gastronomically decorated with jars of various “small plate” marinated vegetables, roasted beets, olives, peppers, and Brussels sprouts. The back bar also provides the backdrop, through large windows, to the charming and historic North Square, a real Italian piazza if I’ve ever seen one.

Jeff and Carmen Malloy are veterans of the restaurant wars, having learned their skills as chefs and as managers in the trenches of New Jersey. They both refined their skills in Boston, at some very solid joints; Pulcinella in Cambridge and Pomodoro in Boston. Jeff also worked at Il Panino and at Prezza, both North End heavyweights. The lovely and charming Carmen, whose Italian roots trace back to Calabria, was chief coordinator for a VIP catering company for three years in Spokane and moved to NJ and worked as the catering manager for the Max’s Group (where she met Jeff). After the main characters, the supporting staff is friendly, non-intrusive and knowledgeable. Our server, Corinna Cespedes, not only knew the menu front and back, she also accurately matched the perfect wine with each course. The chef, Tom Gerard, in conjunction with the executive chef, Malloy, work in tandem to offer delicious, minimalist, and fresh Italian food with little twists and turns to make the dishes distinct.

A large bowl of ocean fresh Steamed Wellfleet Clams were served in a fragrant, creamy broth with a touch of homemade mustard and quickly cooked, sweet and crisp fennel. The flavors combined Sicilian, French, and American flavors. The broth was too good to leave behind, and I didn’t. Two generous circles of tasty, not too smoky, Grilled Smoked Mozzarella were served with fresh oven-roasted tomatoes, thin slices of soppressata, and a delicious salsa verde with roasted pignoli. This was an excellent interpretation of a traditional antipasto combining the core ingredients.

The Warm Goat Cheese Salad came with a nice big piece of herb and bread encrusted goat cheese. The greens were extra fresh with sweet grape tomatoes and an incredibly balanced Balsamic Vinaigrette made with smoked bacon. This was a real killer salad for the salad traditionalist, no frills, just solid and disciplined. These first tastes told me a lot about Chef Gerard – he doesn’t over season his food and he balances the expression of flavor. I enjoyed a nice glass of Sardinian “La Cala” Vermentino. It was supple, crisp and dry, with fullness of flavor and very slight acidity.

Now it was time for some starch. Seared Scallops with Butternut Squash Risotto featured large, fresh perfectly seared sea scallops. The scallops had that deep and sweet, wild sea flavor with nutty nuances. The risotto’s texture was in the true Italian manner, firm-al dente. The sweet cubes of butternut squash played harmoniously with the applewood smoked bacon, and the deep and earthy sage brought everything in balance, from the sea and from the land. A circle of the very expensive and very good Rubio Balsamic (imported by Salumeria Italiana) made for a pleasing palate teaser.

Next was a hearty and wintry dish of Braised Duck with Spinach Tagliatelle. The al dente tagliatelle actually tasted like spinach. The duck, cooked confit, was tender and juicy. Combined with the roasted root vegetables (which included parsnips) with a very rich and deep duck stock, and with several dollops of goat cheese, this was indeed a pasta dish to celebrate. Cheers!

The Spice Crusted Tuna was seared rare and nicely seasoned. So good, it was, that it tasted like a filet mignon. Malloy hand picks his seafood at the fish pier daily. It was served with a Celery Root and Potato puree that was straight out of Grandma’s New England Kitchen, just so homey and so comforting. The Phantom Gourmet describes the Slow Roasted Rack of Pork as a “dish worth traveling for”. That may be an understatement. This impressive and massive piece of bone-in pork is succulent, juicy, intense, and tender. Cooked perfectly (which does mean a little pink in the middle) it’s served with a delicious and lightly piquant sauce of mustard, vinegar, grape, and jalapeno. Accompanied by a sauté of vinegary braised cabbage, Cortland Apples, pancetta and potatoes, this was again a New England meets Italia dish.

This nondescript, little, and charming Ristorante, can be lost in the maze of more easily identifiable and centrally located restaurants. Follow the Freedom Trail and you will find Carmen’s next door to Paul Revere’s house. Once you do find it, however, it will become your little Florentine vacation spot.

Carmen’s Web site.