Restaurants disappear with the regularity of sunsets: Every week some operator quits, retires or opts out of a jacked-up lease. Less often, a restaurateur hits the reset button on a thriving concern, trying a fresh look, concept and menu. That’s what owner Steve Bowman recently did with his four-year-old Fairsted Kitchen, transforming it from a restaurant that skittered eccentrically between pan-Mediterranean, gastropub and haute-vegetarian conceits into something familiar: a casual joint called Grassona’s Italian. Much as I enjoyed Fairsted’s food, it was tough to describe. With chef Phil Dwyer (a veteran of Fairsted and Ribelle) in the kitchen, the new place has no such problem: Think North End red sauce, but with better details and a superior beverage program.
So a vegetable antipasto ($11/four selections) includes a superior version of eggplant caponata (“I remember this from Ribelle,” beams a friend), good giardiniera, sweet roasted peppers and super-tangy marinated mushrooms. Baked stuffed clams casino ($4 each), smallish stuffies topped with crisp bacon, are a fine idea. Phil’s slow-braised meatballs ($12) draw tender depths from pork, beef, veal, bacon and chorizo, and feature a sweet, bright sugo. Mussels fra diavolo ($11) offer a generous, pristine portion of bivalves for the price, the tomato sauce vividly spiked with dried chili and fat, briny capers.
Italian wedding soup ($8) floats a pile of smaller-bore, simpler meatballs in good chicken broth with kale and rice, simple and hearty. By contrast, white bean soup ($9) appears to have picked up a French accent somewhere: It’s delicate, silky and creamy. Caesar salad ($9) with smoked anchovies and lots of good Parmesan and black pepper loses style points but gains shareability with its torn-up romaine.
Grassona’s doesn’t deliver the most Instagrammable evening out: homely comfort generally trumps comely platings here. So while fettuccine Alfredo ($16) is almost blindingly pale and featureless but for a dusting of nutmeg, it’s nevertheless a winsome version of an often heavy, lifeless standby, wreaking lightness out of simple butter and Parmesan. Dwyer’s rich, long-cooked meat sauces shine in two dishes: rigatoni with lamb ragu ($19) and pappardelle Bolognese ($22). Lasagna alla norma ($18) is one of the lovelier vegetarian pasta dishes I’ve sampled in a while, exquisitely interweaving pignoli, housemade ricotta, more of that terrific caponata and an ethereal parsnip crema. Only the ambitious calamarata ($23) flops, its loops of wide pasta ribbons sauced with a shellfish puttanesca that is fatally overperfumed by smoked olives.
The hefty mains are mostly straightforward and unpretentious, like an enormous braised pork shank osso buco ($28) that has the unchallenging virtues of a Yankee pot roast: tender, substantial and bland, its foundation of root-vegetable risotto barely registers. Roast sausages ($19) are similarly gentle in flavor, though their bed of white beans and greens yields welcome, vinegary snap. Whole bone-in branzino piccata ($29) is skillfully cooked and zippily sauced with lemon, capers and white wine. A couple of parmigiana-style cutlets (eggplant, $17; chicken, $19) accompanied by red-sauced thin fettucine are solid if undistinguished efforts. The one real head-turner is a photogenic, refined veal porterhouse saltimbocca ($36), an elegant and delectable array of veal, crisp/creamy fontina polenta squares, hard-fried prosciutto and fried whole sage leaves. It’s a tantalizing glimpse of what a pricier, tonier Grassona’s might have been. Desserts are serviceable, like an espresso semi-freddo ($10) that reads rather ice-cream-like, and the better, bracingly salty chocolate buddino ($11) with a white chocolate/cherry cookie for dipping.
The bar appears certain to continue Fairsted’s tradition of attracting sophisticated neighborhood drinkers and a late-night industry crowd with classic and creative craft cocktails ($12) like the Nibgroni of genever, cocoa-nib infused Campari and sweet vermouth. There’s a short, sharp, New England-centric beer list ($3.50-$9, six drafts and two packaged). The amaro assortment ($7-$10) boasts welcome rarities like Pasubio ($7), which combines acerbic mountain botanicals with a fruitier, lighter fortified-wine base, and Alta Verde ($7), a wormwood-laced Alpine gobsmacker with a captivating golden hue. The wine program offers both weeknight affordability by the glass (10 options, $8-$13; house carafes, $25) and some rarified heights in a fascinating 50-bottle list. It’s mostly Italian, helpfully categorized (north, central, south), and tosses in a few Americans, with solid under-$50 offerings in every region and value-priced stunners above $100. We found joy in a 2015 Cavallotto Grign ($59), a pale-red pleaser from the Langhe region of Piedmont, and felt like smart shoppers splurging on a 2012 Casanova di Neri Brunello ($114).
Service reflects Bowman’s own gentle-hearted, enthusiastic attentiveness. The room’s post-Fairsted makeover likewise imparts a warming glow as the walls are now painted burgundy and white, lined with jars of pickles and dried pasta, and there’s candles flickering in straw-covered Chianti bottles. Cocktail glasses and serving plates are handsome mismatched antiques, down to wee porcelain saltcellars for grated cheese and red-pepper flakes. With its accumulation of cozy, sincere touches, the place evokes something many local red-sauce palaces strain for yet rarely achieve: an actual whiff of Italian-American grandma cooking, with all its rustic simplicity, generosity and eagerness to please. In a business where second acts are always tricky, Grassona’s is a damn charming one. ◆
Phil’s slow-braised meatballs
Mussels fra diavolo
Creamy white bean soup
Rigatoni with lamb ragu
Lasagna alla norma
Whole branzino piccata
Grassona’s Italian, 1704 Beacon St., Brookline (617-396-8752) grassonasitalian.com; Hours: Tue.-Sat., 5-10 pm (bar till midnight), Sun., 5-9 pm (bar till midnight); Reservations: Yes; Liquor: Full; Parking: Metered street spaces