It’s been a good year for Italian openings in the South End’s resurgent restaurant scene, from gloriously buzzing, upmarket entrants like SRV and Bar Mezzana to the trattoria-with-brilliant-pizza Area Four Boston. To that worthy lineup you can add MIDA at the corner of Mass. Ave. and Tremont Street. In an intimate, casual-chic setting, veteran fine-dining chef and first-time owner Douglass Williams and sous-chef Brian Paszko perform a fascinating balancing act, building beautifully plated, sophisticated renditions of rustic classics from a farmers market’s worth of local ingredients.
Smaller plates feature several seen-’em-everywhere dishes like arancini ($8), three golf balls dolloped with thick, spicy tomato sauce, but each crisp coating gives way to an uncommonly creamy interior bound by fontina and flecked with bitter greens, like a wee risotto pocket. Caponata toast ($10) may be yet another crostino, but its topping is extraordinarily complex and delicious, a smashing interplay of sweet/sour flavors and crunchy/tender textures of eggplant agrodolce plus tiny chunks of beets and delicata squash. One might hope for darker, oilier funkiness in bluefish bacalao ($8)—it’s barely less mild than salt cod—but the dish rises on the piquant sweet-olive flavor of Castelvetrano aioli and faintly bitter roasted lemon paste. Maine grains salad ($10) tops an underlayer of thick fresh yogurt with a sweetly spiced, chewy mix of wheat and triticale berries, shaved squash and cubes of pickled rutabaga drizzled with hazelnut pesto: a sublime, sepia-toned winter comfort. Whole roasted parsnip and Spanish octopus ($18) masters the cephalopod equivalent of the Porterhouse steak challenge: cooking both the slender tip and the thick arm of the tentacle to charry, juicy tenderness.
Housemade pastas in traditional Italian primi portions (a big fistful, not an overflowing, oversauced bowlful) range from excellent to amazing. Ricotta gnocchi ($16) gains umami from fermented kale and textural allure in sunchokes done three ways: crunchy chips, roasted slices and creamy hummus. Spicy duck confit orecchiette ($16) gives its fatty ragù a surprising, welcome acid balance with tart tomato, though the pasta is trifle chewier than al dente. The smash hit, though, is bucatini di mare ($16) with a generous mix of rock crab, smoked hake and uni butter topped with anchovy crumbs, a fragrant, irresistible evocation of the seaside. Save some of the bread served with bright house-cultured butter: You’ll want to mop this bowl clean.
Family plates might feed a very small family: They’re more like conventional-sized entrees. With striped bass ($25), don’t expect the whole fish, just a smallish, exquisitely cooked fillet atop kale and some underdone soldier beans. You’ll notice repeat ingredients throughout, but with enough variety of preparation not to bore, e.g., more kale in the salty, vinegary, well-charred market greens ($11), more sunchokes in the terrific, colorful MIDA pickles ($6), which include radishes and romesco cauliflower (the fractal brassica). The kitchen isn’t immune to the occasional misstep in conception or execution, as when subtle rockfish crudo ($9) in black lime oil, fetchingly bedecked with papery rainbow radish slices, is clobbered by too much crème fraîche, or when the generous roasted bone marrow ($13) comes topped with a slightly scorched persillade. The two desserts are simple, homey and very good: a dryish, fine-crumbed citrus-poppyseed cake ($6.50) thickly frosted with buttermilk custard, and a cheese plate ($10) with a lone wedge of the alternately acerbic and buttery bloomy-rind cow’s milk Eidolon from the Vineyard’s Grey Barn, well-paired with cranberry conserva.
GM Seth Gerber’s beverage program has many virtues, opening with a goodly selection of vermouths and amaro spritzes ($6-$11). Delectable specialty cocktails ($11-$13) include the Cinque Terre ($12) of bourbon, Amaro Montenegro, pistachio syrup and lemon, and the Organa ($13) of gin, dry vermouth, elderflower liqueur and Yellow Chartreuse, both dragging clever herbal and tropical accents into classic-cocktail flavor profiles. The short beer list ($8-$28, six drafts, four bottles) favors chewier New England brews, while 10 by-the-glass wines ($11-13) are food-friendly and versatile. But I particularly esteem the 78-bottle wine list for trundling through some undervalued regions of Italy and France at consumer-friendly markups too infrequently seen in Boston. Most of the 10 sparklers ($33-$108) and 30 reds ($35-$131) don’t cross the $70 mark, while most of the 28 whites ($33-$89) fall under $50. They include lovely finds like the oh-so-pale 2013 i Clivi Colli Orientali ($50), a ribolla gialla from Friuli with a profound, almost salty minerality and delicate, tangeriney acidity, and the 2012 Chateau Sainte Anne d’Evenos Côtes de Provence Rouge ($65), a Mourvèdre-heavy blend from Bandol, beautifully garnet-toned, light-bodied and round.
The flatteringly dimly lit, 58-seat dining room—in tones of vanilla and glossy black, its far corner affording an entertaining view of the open kitchen—and the comfortably spaced 12-seat bar have the convivial, occasionally loud-for-conversation ambiance of a neighborhood joint with a well-lubricated crowd relaxed by warm, polished service. Douglass’ ambitious first solo venture still has a minor kink or two to work out, but its compact combination of soul-satisfying Italian, good drinks and nice-priced wines seems destined to finally drag the neighborhood’s well-heeled denizens west of Mass. Ave., the only frontier the South End has left.
-Maine grains salad
-Parsnip and octopus
-Bucatini di mare
Hours: Dinner, Mon.-Sat., 5:30-11 pm, Sun., 5:30-10 pm; Brunch, Sun., 11 am-2 pm; Bar open till 1 am Mon.-Wed., till 2 am Thu.-Sat, till 10:30 pm Sun. Reservations: Yes Parking: Metered street spaces, very limited guest parking Liquor: Full bar
MIDA 782 Tremont St., Boston (617-936-3490) midaboston.com