Food -TV behemoth Mario Batali and his partners cut a big swath across our food scene late last year when they opened Eataly Boston, a gleaming mini-mall of Italian food retailing and restaurants inside the Pru. Most of the dining options here are informal counters at which to grab a pizza, crudo, salumi and a glass of wine in a fancy-food-court setting. But the new Terra, located on the becalmed third floor of the tourist-mobbed complex, is a full-service restaurant built around a huge wood-fired grill. In addition to the out-of-town operators’ pedigrees, there’s respected local talent (chef de cuisine Dan Bazzinotti, ex-BISq) on board. So how does Terra manage to be so maddeningly inconsistent?
Terra’s service immediately starts off-kilter with the odious water-upsell gambit: offering “still or sparkling,” not mentioning both are bill-padding imported bottles, a wretched first hospitality interaction. Some servers are intimate with the menu; others are robotic script-reciters stumped by the most basic questions. Eataly has poached a lot of talent from local indies building its 500-person staff, but not everyone’s a prize.
Meanwhile, the kitchen alternates between admirable skill, odd tentativeness about traditional Italian flavors and ineptitude. Every item on the spiedini (wood-grilled skewers) list is perfectly seasoned and terrific, like funghi trombetta ($7), thick slices of garlicky trumpet royale mushrooms, the stunning cuore di manzo ($8), gnarly, deep-flavored strips of beef heart spiked with chili and lemon, and sanguinaccio ($10), showing off Bazzinotti’s famed charcuterie chops in blood sausage topped with a snappy salsa verde. Bruschette (one, $4; two, $7; three, $11) are mostly quite fine: grilled bread with simple, vivid toppings like burro e acciughe, a mix of cultured butter, chopped anchovies and radishes, and the lovely melanzana, creamy roasted eggplant dotted with pine nuts and raisins. Ceci e bottarga ought to be a smash, topping pureed chickpeas with cured, pressed mullet roe. But the spread is drastically underseasoned, and the bottarga is startlingly insipid, lacking its usual fierce, beguiling funkiness: a bland bust.
Among small plates, ostriche grigliate ($11) offer an on-point rendition of wood-grilled local oysters punched up with oregano-heavy salmoriglio, while barbabietole ($13) presents a pretty update on beet and goat cheese salad, subbing in delicately stringy stracciatella. But asparagi al carbone ($12), roasted asparagus crowned with a poached egg (and more of that sad bottarga), arrives stone cold. Generous but not oversized pastas are frequently brilliant. Agnolotti di coniglio ($21), little housemade ravioli filled with rabbit in Italian butter with fresh favas, is ravishing: simple and perfect. Orecchiette con agnello ($20) is similarly reductive and rich with its deep-flavored lamb ragu and grating of tangy sheep cheese. Spaghetti al pomodoro affumicato ($17) is another elegant winner with its chunky, smoky tomato sugo. So how does rigatoni alla napoletana ($18) get through the kitchen with such laughably undercooked (like, three minutes short of done) pasta?
Secondi can be similarly erratic. Orata intera ($26) is fabulous: whole sea bream roasted to exquisite just-doneness with grilled lemon. Calamari ($24) turns out to be a wonderful Moorish-inflected tomato-based stew of tenderly grilled squid with caper berries, currants and pine nuts. But what should be a slam-dunk for this kitchen—tagliata di manzo ($32), a smallish filet of wood-grilled top sirloin—misses its requested temperature by two steps. That’s baffling when the large-format grigliata mista ($38) absolutely nails every one of its fire-roasted meats, from the juicy lamb leg, to chewy strips of pork belly, to slices of housemade pork sausage, to a meltingly tender, fatty veal braciole.
Even the side dishes are an adventure. Patate fritte ($6), steamed-then-fried potatoes with rosemary and lemon, are crunchily fantastic. Scafata ($9) is a delicate stew of spring vegetables, lemon and mint. Piselli ($7) punches up crisp snap peas with chunks of guanciale. But who thought drowning grilled broccolini ($6) in pecorino romano sauce was a good idea? That’s a dish from another kind of mall restaurant. Desserts manage to impress across the board, especially miele noci ($9), little towers of walnut bread crisp with walnut/almond crema and honey custard; panzanella dolce ($9), a sweet salad of olive-oil cake croutons, orange and kumquat slices, lemon blancmange and caramel; and bomboloni al rabarbaro ($9), essentially grilled-rhubarb-filled donuts.
To its credit, Terra’s mostly Italian wine list is surprisingly affordable, with the kind of gentle markups (most under three times retail) I wish more Boston restaurants would offer. The bar’s specialty cocktails are well-executed, and there’s a nicely broad selection of Italian vermouths and amari. The restaurant also devotes some space to aging craft beers in repurposed barrels, like Cambridge Brewing’s Brett Conspiracy ($10), a wild ale aged in an old cabernet wine barrel: a fascinating idea that not a single bartender or server had anything to say about. The airy space is charming, with its greenhouse-glass ceiling, manageable noise levels and rustic-kitchen-larder accents. But two months in, Terra casts an unflattering light on Batali and company’s culinary juggernaut as indifferently managed at best, occasionally timid about the traditions it claims to extol and exploitative of unwary tourists at worst. At these prices, locals deserve better, and will demand it.
Funghi trombetta spiedino
Cuore di manzo spiedino
Agnolotti di coniglio
Spaghetti al pomodoro affumicato
Terra at Eataly Boston 800 Boylston St., Boston (617-807-7307) eataly.com Hours: Sun.-Thu., 5-10 pm; Fri.-Sat., 5-11 pm Reservations: Yes Parking: Validated garage parking, metered street spaces Liquor: Full bar