Friday, August 26, 2011

Affordable Al Fresco


Sophia’s Grotto

Located in the heart of Roslindale Square, Sophia’s Grotto is an affordable treat, offering fresh and simple takes on classic dishes from Spain and Italy. This longtime local favorite has consistently scored well with casual diners and critics alike, by staying true to the sensual, approachable feeling of an Italian trattoria. Sophia’s somehow manages to attract both the stroller set and the first date crowd without compromising either. For longtime residents, Sophia’s Grotto is the place to take guests and big groups to celebrate; for the first time visitors, it’s like discovering a wormhole to Tuscany.

What separates Sophia’s Grotto from the dozens of other Italian eateries in Boston is its location, a charming courtyard hidden in the middle of Roslindale Village. Dining al fresco in Boston often amounts to little more than an clumsily roped off section of sidewalk, offering a view of parked cars. Sophia’s Grotto, which can only be reached on foot, makes the cars disappear altogether. Diners, their children, and sometimes even their dogs, enjoy a lovingly landscaped courtyard rimmed with bistros and small shops. Big band sounds float by as torches and tea candles vie with the moon and stars, the rich aromas of roast garlic and paella delight the senses even before the bread arrives.

The wait staff, whose casual attire belies their polish, work as a team to serve and turn the tables. Pockets of would be diners wait along the margins, window shopping the cheese cellar and casting longing glances at the tapas plates zipping past them. A long wine list, which features many excellent bottles under $30, is soon followed by a basket of locally baked bread. The wine and the tapanede complete the work begun by the high brick walls. The city, and all of its attendant stresses yield to a Mediterranean evening.  

Specials and prix fixe menus come and go at Sophia’s Grotto, but the core menu remains reassuringly unchanged, allowing regulars to order with confidence when introducing the restaurant to friends. Both the Spanish and Italian antipasto plates make strong cases for their respective cuisines, and are generous enough to pass around a table of four. A pair of artichokes, stuffed with goat cheese and belted with prosciutto, are bit oversized for an appetizer and yet too stingy to pass around. The fried calamari dish, while lacking in tentacles, manages to be both a sophisticated starter and a tasty, salty bar snack. The only thing truly holding back the small plates section is an over reliance upon cheese as an ingredient, which dulls out the bright flavors a bit.

Sophia’s Grotto offers a selection of hearty Italian sandwiches, which should be either split or packaged to take home due to their jaw stretching size. None of the grinders are particularly innovative, but they are affordable, and tasty enough to put your average Boston sub shop to shame. Likewise, the pizzas served at Sophia’s Grotto are miles apart from their sub shop cousins. Thin, almost sauceless, and sure to give garlic breath, these pizzas are made for passing around the table. In terms of cheap-eats, this is one area where Sophia’s Grotto perhaps fails to deliver, even at prices under $15 these pies are more of a tasty afterthought than an entree sized offering.

Like any good trattoria, Sophia’s Grotto features no less than half a dozen pasta dishes for under $20. The pasta is handmade and always cooked al dente. The portions reach almost Cheesecake Factory levels of overkill, which has the unfortunate effect of making the diner tired of the flavor before finishing the dish. One standout pasta dish is the unusual and toothsome Ziti Boscaiola; wild mushrooms, asparagus and crispy ham are paired with a mild tomato cream sauce for a very satisfying meal. Sadly, the peculiar and poorly executed opened face ravioli commits the unpardonable sin of hiding the scallops and shrimp under mascarpone. Thankfully, it is the only pasta dish, which falls short of the otherwise high standards.

Of course, one would be remiss to visit such a restaurant without indulging in the seafood for which Italy and Spain are both duly celebrated. This is not to say the chicken and meat dishes are poorly done; they just feel more obligatory than inspired. At $21, the the paella is one of the pricier offerings at the grotto, but it is also the star performer. This is one case where I wish the chefs had indulged their passion for oversized portions, because paella was meant to be shared; still it is large enough for a hungry couple. This dish is very popular and all of the seafood components have a fresh flavor, while the rice is saffron golden without tasting too much of that flower. The spicy mussels are a steal at $12.95 and come with an unforgettable chorizo and fennel stew (which could easily stand on its own). There is something about sipping wine and piling up the sleek, empty black shells under a purple and pink streaked sky, which makes this dish, and this restaurant, feel like a scene from a well-loved novel.

Sophia’s Grotto
22r Birch Street, Roslindale; (617) 323-4595, sophiasgrotto.com.

ATMOSPHERE Part tapas bar, part trattoria, casual and al fresco.

SOUND LEVEL More music than street noise, lively and crowded.

RECOMMENDED DISHES Spanish antipasto, fried calamari, Torino pizza, Arctic char, paella.

WINE LIST A global wine list on a backpacker’s budget, decent sangria.

PRICE RANGE Entrees top out at $23, reasonably priced throughout the menu.

HOURS Monday to Thursday, 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, 1 p.m. to 10 p.m. Brunch served Saturday and Sunday from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

RESERVATIONS Dinner only.

CREDIT CARDS All major cards

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