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A tale of two pastas: La Spina & Sagra, Davis Square

Dr.Jimbob | Jul 31, 200705:16 PM

My wife has been in something of a pasta mood lately. We're recently moved to the Porter/Davis area, and I've tried La Spina once before. There's been a fair amount of traffic on Chowhound about these two places, but I hadn't managed to set foot in Sagra until last week. Subsequently wound up going to La Spina later in the week for an A/B comparison.

First, Sagra, where we met a friend last Tuesday for a last minute dinner. There was none of the fussing that I had read about reservations, but then the college kids are away, and we did arrive fairly early in the evening (around 6:30 pm). We were seated immediately at a table in front of the large front windows which open up for a commanding alfresco view of ... Highland Avenue. Well, OK, maybe not the most spectacular view, but it does add a nice tough of light and air.

I tried a glass of the Colli Ripani Centauro, which is a Sangiovese. It's a cheap glass, and I more or less got what I paid for -- decent but not spectacular, a bit tight, opened up a bit as the glass aired. Bread at the table was some sort of curious halfbreed between the oily crust of a focaccia and the spongy interior of a Tuscan country bread, though there was something odd about the texture that I couldn't put my finger on. This was served up with a bean and oil spread which was supplemented with cheese shavings and was quite lovely. The three of us tasted three pastas: the tagliatelle con funghi was my favorite of the batch, home made hand made pasta cooked to perfection, with a tasty sauce rich in mushroom flavor and mushroom chunks. The ravioli was quite interesting -- nicely chewy pasta, ricotta filling with the intriguing addition of a strong lemon note, and a sauce with more ricotta and lemon, cherry tomatoes and basil. I've never tried a lemon ricotta raviolum before, the lemon does add a very interesting alternate note to the standard ravioli, though I'm not convinced it's something I'd have to have over and over again. The gnocchi al sugo d'antara is served up in a duck ragu. The ragu was very good, but the gnocchi unfortunately a little too pillow soft -- as in, no chew to speak of, less melt in the mouth than disintegrate into liquid in the mouth. Their chocolate bread pudding was solidly good (though I'm remembering this against the triple chocolate wonder at 75 Chestnut and Sagra comes up short here). The espresso is Lavazza.

By 8 pm as we were leaving, the joint was packed. We did enjoy our meal, though for better or for worse, I'm missing the comfort food wonderfulness of my old neighborhood haunt, Panificio on Charles Street. But the tagliatelle at last looks like a sure bet.

My wife and I had dinner at La Spina as a last minute Valentine's Day outing in February. We remember uneven food, though some touches of wonderfulness and puzzling service. On Valentine's Day, the mixed antipasto plate had nice olive oil marinated vegetables and salted meats that ranged between decent eats and mediocre cold cuts. Their gnocchi was quite good; not quite in the league of No. 9 Park or Grotto, but very solid, better chew than Sagra and a respectable tomato-and-cheese sauce. The roasted salmon was solid if not spectacular, as was the tiramisu. The wait staff needed to be prompted to bring out bread and olive oil and the wait between courses was puzzlingly long considering how empty the place was.

We returned to La Spina for the first time this past Friday night, to see if they had worked out any of the bugs. The place was almost completely empty. Despite that, they still had to be prompted to bring out bread (though it was a lovely, tasty toasted baguette) and the delays in between courses was astonishing considering how few tables were filled and how much wait staff seemed to be sitting twiddling their thumbs around the bar.

The food was a bigger disappointment. We started with a special, sold to us as fried calamari on a bed of greens. Turns out the calamari was "sauteed" not fried, and when it arrived at the table, it seemed more like it had been boiled or steamed, given the lack of char marks. The squid itself was just barely overcooked, so that the texture was unappetizingly rubbery. The sauce with the squid was a lovely olive oil and garlic vinaigrette, but none of the flavor in the vinaigrette found its way into the flavor of either the calamari or the greens.

I asked the waiter if he would recommend the gnocchi or the spinach-and-cheese tortelloni, and he steered me to the tortelloni. Too bad, since the tortelloni was spectacularly unspectacular. The pasta was not bad, but the cheese-tomato-and-spinach filling was bland and underseasoned. The frutta di mare with white sauce pasta dish had more of the rubbery calamari, two mussels that had not opened and were left in the bowl, otherwise passable mussels and clams, and all this was swimming in a veritable soup that tasted like it had been laced with the exact same olive oil and garlic vinaigrette that had been in the salad. Struck me as disappointing laziness to use that same sauce; not that I claim to be an expert on Italian food, but I vaguely remember learning that there are more than two sauces in Italian cuisine.

The delays were sufficiently disheartening and the food was sufficiently deflating that we didn't stick around for dessert or coffee. As we left around 9 pm, the place was still pretty much empty, and this on a Friday night when it was too hot and sticky to cook. Prices are a shade higher than at Sagra (portions are bigger, but the portions are of food I'm not too thrilled to eat), somewhat surprising given the dark underlit subdued family-red-sauce-type decor.

All in all, Sagra has elements of promise, funkier environs and some very good food. I find myself wondering what Gordon Ramsay would learn if he visited La Spina. I for one don't feel a need to go back to give them another try.

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