When I tell people I live in Roslindale, more often than not I'm greeted with one of two responses. They both sound the same: "Oh yeah, Roslindale" but the accompanying facial expressions convey two different understandings of the place. People either believe the area to be fairly rough around the edges, reflective of how it was 30 years ago. Others simply know nothing of the town and assume it's in a far off and distant land. “Roslindale? Is that near Worcester?” I once belonged to this second group, until house-hunting led me here, where I found my home and discovered my commute downtown was somehow shorter than when I lived in Brighton.
For decades, leading right up until the late nineties, the neighborhood boasted a no-frills, working class environment. Admittedly, there are still some sections of the town that are run-down and are less than desirable locales, but these areas have shrunk considerably throughout the years. A concerted effort by both private investors and the City of Boston to restructure and revitalize the town began right around century’s end and continues to this day. When one now encounters Roslindale village for the first time they realize they've been let in on one of Boston's many well kept secrets. "The Square," as residents refer to it, holds a unique blend of charm mixed with grit, posh meeting practical and trendy butting up against tradition. At the heart of the village, hidden seemingly intentionally lies one of the city's finest restaurants. The best part about Sophia's Grotto, is that it somehow manages to go easy on your wallet while still stirring and awakening all your senses.
Birch Street is one of the four streets that makes up Roslindale Square. It is arguably the newest and most transformed of the four. A gourmet cheese shop, a top-notch wine store and a fine-dining bistro all call the tiny one-way street home. Interestingly, one has to traverse a small alley in order to find the Northern Italian and Mediterranean restaurant that is Sophia’s Grotto. After fifteen-feet of enclosed brick walls, the alley opens up into a sprawling outdoor dining area. One is transported, in an instant, to a place far from the hub of Boston. White, sparkling strands of Christmas bulbs serve as lighting, a fountain bubbles in the corner beside a yellow and red cement wall ripped right out of Florence and soothing lyric-less music echoes off the walls of the enclosed courtyard. While Sophia’s shares this space with two other restaurants, it inhabits the bulk of the area. There can be upwards of twenty tables set up for al fresco dining while the dimly lit, exposed-brick interior holds only ten and room for eight squeezed at the bar.
The food is simple, but I’ve yet to have a dish that doesn’t hold some surprising quality as it blossoms with more and more flavor with each bite. If you’re with a party of three or more I highly recommend starting by sharing some small plates. The fried rolled eggplant crammed with three cheeses ($9.95) and the artichoke hearts filled with goat cheese and wrapped in prosciutto (11.95) are just two of the many stellar choices to pick from. At Sophia’s, as is the case in Italy, guests are not required or even encouraged to order a pricy entree next as the restaurant offers four wonderful sandwiches and six delicious pizzas, cooked in an authentic wood burning oven, all for $13 or less. If you’d rather the full gourmet experience, dishes like the spinach and ricotta ravioli (17.95) and the stuffed pork tenderloin (19.95) dance with flavor, leaving you wanting nothing more and costing far less than any dish of this quality would anywhere else in town.
If you’re part of that large faction of Bostonians who know nothing of Roslindale, it’s time you pay us a visit. Spend a few afternoon hours taking in the beauty of the Arnold Arboretum before heading into the village. Sophia’s Grotto should most certainly be your destination for dinner. Enjoy creative Italian cuisine that rivals the North End’s best at a fraction of the cost, free from the annoyance of tourists and without the hassle of finding a parking spot. You won’t regret it.