It can be depressing for a food geek to see customers queued up on North End sidewalks for pedestrian Italian-American fare, or packed into upmarket faux-Italian joints around town that deliver flashy ambiance but scant sophistication on the plate. Mercifully, more Bostonians are seeking out alternatives to this middlebrow flood of dull red sauce and datza-spicy-meataballa shtick. Add the new Fat Hen in East Somerville to that tiny but growing subset of our Italian restaurants that answer the call for genuine refinement in an often-debased cuisine.

Chef Michael Bergin paid earlier dues in high-end kitchens like Boston’s L’Espalier and Manhattan’s Del Posto, where haute French and highfalutin Italian respectively are served in labor-intensive preparations of painstakingly sourced, photogenically plated ingredients. That legacy shows in his name-checking of local farms, the sophistication of his underlying technique and the prettiness of his compositions, but a humbler neighborhood setting means Bergin can deliver them at nicer prices, like the tremendous value of the four-course “degustazione” menu (app, pasta, entree, dessert) for $45.

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Certainly the room—a narrow, sparsely decorated, 30-seat bandbox lined with two parallel banquettes—gives no intimation of the finesse to follow. That starts with an uncommonly good, softish semolina roll served with quality butter in good EVOO. Vitello tonnato ($15) adds novel and welcome offal gaminess to the Piemontese classic of veal dressed with tuna-spiked mayo by using thinly sliced veal tongue as its foundation. Fluke crudo ($9) is rendered like a string of jewels, pristine squares of the mild, barely marinated local flatfish topped with bits of sweet Italian frying peppers, little orange segments and the sublime umami funk of bottarga. The very dim lighting is a disservice to the chef’s artful presentations—whip out your phone light to appreciate them before you tuck in.

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Housemade pastas are frequently stunning, as in tortellini brodo ($17), floppy-edged pasta filled with exquisitely creamy, mildly sweet acorn squash in an extraordinarily deep-flavored, teak-toned capon consommé dotted with cubes of carrot and rutabaga. Corzetti ($16) offers similarly dramatic textural and flavor contrast between its phenomenally earthy, concentrated mushroom stock, poker-chip-sized flat discs of pasta, tangy spoonfuls of cow’s-milk Cloumage and sprinkling of dark, crunchy sourdough crumbs. The superb spaghetti with Jonah crab ($18) offers abundant, buttery/briny seafood and lovely, faint accents of green tomato and bacon. Rustic flavors of cauliflower, chickpeas, garlic, dried chili and preserved lemon give tagliatelle ($15) an unexpected North African lilt and surprising richness for a vegetarian dish.

Entrees showcase Bergin’s subtle flair for North Italian dishes, as in the neatly crisp-skinned, Tuscan-inspired chicken al mattone ($24) made from a very flavorful local bird, heartily flanked with al dente farro, Brussels sprouts, charred cippolinis and mild, fruity Cerignola olives. Picture-pretty lamb saddle ($28) uses fork-tender slices of almost too-mild lamb loin, saved from dullness by the umami-laden ferocity of pureed black garlic. The just-done juiciness of swordfish ($22) with bare dottings of little potatoes and clams exorcises the memory of a hundred dry, overdone versions. The savory Piemontese custard that is sformato ($20) provides the base for another intriguing, beautifully textured vegetarian dish, the custard here torn into chunks and arrayed with sunchoke, black kale, blackened pepperonata and hazelnuts. Desserts ($10) lean light and simple, as in a fine apple crostata, affogato (a bowl of espresso befogged with a scoop of salted-caramel gelato) and velvety rice pudding.

Four aperitivo cocktails make good use of Italian vermouths and amari, as in L’Avventura ($10), an icy, nicely balanced highball of bittersweet Meletti and Santa Maria al Monte punched up with lemon, mint and nutmeg. The beer list includes four mild, food-friendly styles ($6-$8) and five heftier Italian craft brews ($15). The small waitstaff negotiates the usually packed, comfortably loud room with informal grace and charm.

Fat Hen’s surprise secret weapon, though, is sommelier Paige Farrell, a veteran of Asta and Menton who brings a nonpareil ebullience and élan to the service of a wittily curated list: nine options by the glass ($11-$14, bottles $44-$56) and 24 bottles ($44-$175, most under $75), including six on a “racconto” list highlighting particular varietals, producers or themes. She deftly guided us to nice-priced delights like the 2010 Pietregiovani ($11/$44), an inky charmer of a Puglian negroamaro with an elegant, barely tannic finish; the 2012 Bussola Ca’ del Laito ($14/$56), a valpolicella ripasso from the Veneto, dropping the smack of a medium-big amarone at a fraction of the price; and the 2014 Eugenio Bocchino “Roccabella” ($75), a Piemontese nebbiolo that poured with intriguing, rough-edged complexity and opened up into something whispery, silky, ravishing.

Ultimately, Fat Hen represents a useful extension of several underserved aesthetics: fine-dining quality sans white-tablecloth pomp at neighborhood prices (pioneered on this block by the adjacent La Brasa), tonier treatments of revered regional Italian traditions (recently exemplified by the South End’s SRV and Bar Mezzana) and the kind of fierce little wine program that can elevate a modest-seeming weeknight spot into something occasion-worthy. Over a restaurant scene that staggers under the weight of too much leaden veal parm and too many ghastly, warmed-over Sopranos cliches, the unprepossessing little Fat Hen unexpectedly, fantastically soars.

MC’s Picks                  

-Vitello tonnato
-Fluke crudo
-Tortellini brodo
-Spaghetti with Jonah crab
-Chicken al mattone
-Sformato

Hours: Wed.-Thu., 6-10 pm, Fri.-Sun., 5-10 pm Reservations: Yes Parking: Metered street spaces Liquor: Beer, wine, cordials

Fat Hen 126 Broadway, Somerville (617-764-1612) fathenboston.com

Fat Hen


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