I consider myself a foodie, so whenever I visit a new city or revisit one where I have been, I always focus on where I will be eating during my stay. I recently was in Boston over the Labor Day holiday weekend with a first-time visitor from California, so I wanted to eat in the North End. Being Italian myself and from Philadelphia, I have always loved the North End in Boston, feeling it more authentic than New York and even Philly. I was in search of a non-traditional experience however; not the standard Italian-Americanized cuisine that many tourists may seek out on their initial visit.
I knew I wanted seafood and pasta. I honed in on Neptune Oyster as a lunch option and reserved a table at Taranta, a restaurant that touted itself as "Italian-Peruvian." I had read mostly positive feedback on Chowhound so I reserved a spot there. Now, I also am an avid Food & Wine and Bon Appetit reader. Neptune was highlighted in F&W and it sounded exactly like what I was seeking - oysters and clean fresh seafood. Taranta was a gamble, I knew that. I also wanted a reservation because I wanted to avoid walking around aimlessly trying to decide on a restaurant at the last minute. Neptune and Taranta couldn't be any more different.
Neptune was a terrific stop after an early afternoon visit to the church where Revere ordered the two lanterns hung. Neptune resides on a street parallel to Hanover where Taranta is located, and it was like two different worlds. Hanover is the main artery through North End, so foot traffic and tourists abounded. Although busy, the street where Neptune was situated was quieter, less crowded and more small-town feel. Around 2:30PM on a Saturday, Neptune still had a crowd, but my buddy and I found 2 seats at the bar. We had an amazing lunch: started with a dozen oysters that were shelled perfectly with the juices still intact; some raw littlenecks and cherrystones; then a sauteed calamari in a tomato broth with white beans and hit of spice that was fabulous; and finished off with the crab louie salad which was out of this world, sweet with an almond vinaigrette, a perfect cooling off finish to the meal. Great wine selection and terrific bottled and tapped beers accentuated the meal. Our server Kerri-Ann was likeable, friendly and helpful. This experience made my Saturday. It is amazing what a positive dining experience will do for the mind and soul.
My return to North End in the evening was quite different. We found Taranta at 9 PM, our reserved time, and perused the menu. It was interesting, nothing too outlandish but with some dishes that appealed to our eyes. Upon entry, I had a gut feeling the nite was going to be off-center. I approached the man at the helm of the podium near the door, provided my name and he pointed to the table in the window for us to take; he did it in the fashion of a machine and was seemingly proud to check-off in his book yet another blind soldier into battle. I noticed immediately that this man was the chef, based on his attire, as well as the owner, per the photos in the many reviews so glaringly shown upon entry. I knew this was a bad sign; there were diners in the restaurant yet the head chef was seating guests, never entering the kitchen once during my stay. In fact, in the middle of my meal, I saw the owner outside, on the sidewalk, standing above a newspaper stall reading; I was furious. Upon seating, I had wanted to leave b/c I had an instinctual voice saying "GO." We wanted cocktails to start, but Taranta doesn't have hard liquor, except for a few candied drinks to represent Peru and wherever else. Rather than a vodka rocks, my friend ordered a terrible cremy and frothy cocktail (peruvian) and I a prosecco off-menu. I read the menu again and we decided on sharing an antipasti for 1, followed by the mussels in marsala wine, then my friend having the lobster ravioli and I the casava gnocchi in a braised lamb ragu. Gnocchi are my favorite and I inquired with Marina, our waitress (who turned out to be the only charming asset to the place) if the pastas were homemade. She said pointedly, "no." I was turned off but accepted the reply and ordered the gnocchi b/c I wanted something Peruvian during my meal. I was going for untraditional after all. The wine list was fairly decent, with selections from Italy and Soutth America; we chose a malbec that turned out to be very average. Marina offered no real assistance on the wine.
The antipasti was a rip-off at $12.95. It was evident everything was store-bought and not grilled or prepared in house. It was also minimal and unmemorable. It was a bad sign. I thought about asking for the check and canceling the meal, but I forged ahead. Despite a decent "homemade" mozzarella, the dish was uninspiring.The mussels arrived next and they were lukewarm, the wine sauce too sweet for the mussels. The mussels were tender, but again, the dishwas simply forgettable. I hoped the pastas were the saving grace - they really were not. My friend's ravioli were clearly store-bought and uninspiring, but the shrimp topping the plate were failry good. My gnocchi were decent but heavy - nothing like the light homemade gnocchi I can find in many places in Philadelphia. And the pasta were steeply priced, at $24.95 apiece. This really got to me; if you are not going to make your own pasta, at least be fair in the pricing. AND when I see the head chef reading the paper outside, it means he has gotten lazy and complacent and uncaring for the customer. He has clearly outlived his successes. I am sure initally Taranta served dishes of originality and flavor; now it was all about fast and simple.
My friend and I skipped dessert, as we wanted canolis from Modern Pastry which was recommended to us a few times by locals. We did get to know Marina the waitress during our meal, and honestly, she saved the experience for us. She was lively and passionate. I only wish the food showed that same approach. After talking with Marina, I came to find that the chef no longer worked as much in the kitchen, that he did talke shortcuts, did not make homemade pasta b/c it was "too time-consuming." That is all I needed to hear. If a chef is not willing to show passion and serve the paying customer who is shelling out over $65 a head for an average meal, then get out. Nothing aggravates me more than a bad meal, especially when I know the chef once had a vision and passion and has thrown it away for the dollars.
My tip - Hit Neptune Oyster for lunch AND dinner; skip Taranta! Save your money and try a place called the Daily Catch, where a friend has recommended me their HOMEMADE squid ink pasta!