Calamari has become so commonplace that a devoted diner need only travel as far as his or her neighborhood pizza joint for a quick fix. Of course, finding great — or even half way decent, for that matter — calamari, is an entirely different story and a task much easier dreamed about than accomplished. Thus, it was with some reluctance that I took my first bite of the calamari served to me at Il Villaggio in the North End. I was pleasantly surprised.
The calamari sat beneath mussels, which were steamed to perfection and served with a delicious sauce, and accompanied by an Italian classic: mozzarella and tomato salad. For early spring, the fresh tomatoes were unexpectedly red and sweet, creating a natural foil for the luxuriously smooth and creamy buffalo mozzarella. The cheese had a full flavor, and the basil and balsamic vinegar drizzle immensely enhanced the experience of the dish immensely.
Both appetizers left my fellow diners and I anxiously awaiting our entrees, and I was pleased grateful that I had not overindulged in the fresh bread and olive oil that had been placed on our table upon our arrival. Although the olive oil taunted me with its green hue, seasoned with sea salt, basil and red pepper flakes, I knew the meal would be worth waiting for.
Il Villaggio’s menu is certainly not expansive, but they serve all the classics and they serve them well. While I certainly enjoy the occasional encyclopedic menu, I love when a restaurant serves just enough to ensure variety without creating too much choice. Il Villaggio gives diners options without overwhelming its less adventurous patrons, and has whittled preparation down to a science. Although the kitchen is small, our food came promptly and was plated sensuously expertly.
I was excited to dig into our entrees, which included chicken carciofi (sautéed chicken breast with artichoke hearts in a creamy thyme Dijon sauce), lobster ravioli, and roasted salmon atop vegetable risotto, a special of the evening. Each dish smelled terrific and each plate was eye-catching and colorful. Roasted zucchini and yellow squash surrounded the bronzed chicken breast and tender artichoke hearts in a creamy white sauce, while pink salmon and red tomatoes were set atop white risotto with flecks of various vegetables in a rainbow of colors. The lobster ravioli were striped in reds and yellows and swimming in a perfectly pink tomato sauce.
Sauces are a very important aspect of every cuisine, but Italian food, especially, is almost defined by the myriad of sauces that carefully adorn each dish. These sauces are often overlooked; enough time and care is not usually spent enriching the intricate flavors and nuances that make up a sauce, but Il Villaggio differentiates itself from other restaurants by taking special care with these curious condiments.
The lobster ravioli, for example, which is seen on every menu in the North End, was made special by its sauce. Delicate and creamy, it still allowed the boldness of the tomatoes to shine through and a hint of spice, of warmth, tickled the edges of my tongue with each bite. It was certainly a crowd pleaser among my fellow diners. Our waiter recommended a Chardonnay to go along with the dish and informed me that the wine list will soon be expanding to include some 30 or more bottles.
In a dish like the chicken carciofi, the sauce was the saving grace, turning an ordinary dish into a memorable one. The intimate intertwining of the Dijon and the cream tasted lemony with yet the artichokes yet were surprisingly mellow atop the chicken, allowing the gentle hint of thyme to sneak in after a few seconds.
The salmon entree was also prepared well, but the risotto stole the show and was immensely enjoyed by all at the table. Their standard menu includes three different kinds of risotto – chicken or shrimp, prosciutto, and seafood – which I would recommend to any risotto fan. The Arborio rice was al dente and the vegetables retained crispness and flavor, even when incorporated into the creamy rice. I’m sure Il Villaggio’s three standard risottos are equally delicious and well-prepared.
Full and happy, my fellow diners and I sat back and enjoyed the rest of our evening. We took in the atmosphere of Il Villaggio, our other senses no longer distracted by the all-too-engrossing plates of food set before us. Silver chandeliers, shaped like bunches of intertwined twigs, hung from the ceiling and walls, sparkling in their own light. The patterned metal wall near the kitchen and wine bottles in their rack twinkled in the candlelight while soft jazz played in background. Although small, (the restaurant seats around 30 guests) it was nothing short of warm and cozy. The inviting atmosphere almost made me forget about the spring rain storm and bitter Boston breezes that awaited me outside.
We took our time wrapping up and decided that it was definitely a wise decision for Il Villaggio not to serve desserts. It was much better, indeed, to savor the warmth of a good meal, good company, and the romance of this cozy North End gem on the brief walk for coffee at a local cafe, rather than lose out on those last vestiges of cream sauce and olive oil on our lips. Perfezione!