Restaurateurs and their customers often share a desire to recreate dining experiences garnered abroad. How many of us have spent years vainly chasing cherished foods tasted on past vacations—the romanticized memories of that singular bistro, izakaya or fish shack? The challenges in this quest are many: Quabbin water makes the dough rise differently, you’ll never find as good an artichoke or langoustine here, your family hasn’t spent generations perfecting a tonkotsu broth. So credit chefs Michael Lombardi and Kevin O’Donnell for audacity at SRV, a new South End restaurant in the style of a bacaro, a type of wine bar with food that is highly specific to Venice.
The handsome, casual ambiance here offers a promising start, with tall windows, high ceilings, exposed brick and a bustling 14-seat bar with plenty of standing room. GM and wine director Ted Hawkins has assembled an admirable, mostly Italian wine list with 13 options by the glass ($10-$14). His bottle list is likewise well-curated, with 41 wines ranging from $36 to $285. Among a half-dozen very fairly priced options we sampled were the pale, limey 2014 Ascheri “Cristina” Gavi di Gavi ($44), a cortese from Piemonte, and the 2013 Foradori Vigneti delle Dolomiti ($59) based on the teroldego grape local to Trentino-Alto Adige and aged in clay pots: a rare, intense wine at a gentle price. The bar program features typically Venetian coolers like the Aperol Spritz ($10) and stronger cocktails like the 63 Fairbanks ($11) of gin, Aperol, St. Elder, Green Chartreuse and lime, plus a dozen beers ($6.75-$13).
The lineup of cicchetti (tapas-like small plates), much of it toothpick-mounted finger food, is mostly terrific, with many dishes boasting whiffs of the ocean. Baccala mantecato ($4) attractively tops dark bread with garlicky, whipped salt cod. Mozzarella in carrozza ($3) intriguingly dresses cheese fritters with tomato preserves and waving flakes of funky bonito. The very typically Venetian market fish in saor ($4) stacks lightly pickled mackerel, pickled onions and raisins atop crostini. The spectacular soft-boiled quail egg ($4) is speared with bracing white anchovy. Among seafood bites, only scallop crudo ($4) disappoints, its subtle flavor overwhelmed by bone marrow and horseradish. Nervetti fritti ($2), fried tendon, sounds scary, but turns out to be a heavenly Italian take on fried pork rinds, while polpette ($4) offers crowd-pleasing, deep-flavored pork/beef meatballs in a sweet red sauce. Stop right here, and SRV perfectly channels the spirit of the bacaro, with its throngs of South Enders dropping by for wine and snacks.
But SRV’s space and ambitions are larger: It has a 98-seat dining room, two soon-to-open patios (50 seats on a rear deck and more on the sidewalk) and a full menu of piatti (appetizer-size plates), plus larger grani (pastas and risotti). Piatti boast artfully detailed platings, but tend to succeed best where the preparations are simplest. Carne cruda ($12) lets the brightness of its chopped raw beef shine through a subtle saucing of sunchoke cream and dots of chocolate; maiale al latte ($15) offers nicely crisped pork shoulder with abundant spring onions and just enough mascarpone for heady richness. Smoked sea trout ($14) offers gorgeous chunks of smoky pink flesh with puckery/hot salsa bastarda over lentils. But vitello tonnato ($13) of cold, thin-sliced veal in tuna sauce is underseasoned, while skate wing ($14) suffers from an overwrought combination of sea urchin sauce and blood orange. Dry-aged beef ($16) with roasted cipollini is substantial but lacks the flavor concentration unique to dry-aging. No such flaw haunts vongole alla pescatora ($12), a sensational bowl of small clams in a broth blessed with porky depth, plus garlic bread crowned with curls of translucent guanciale. (Get more bread to mop up that sauce.)
Pastas (made in-house from house-milled flour) and risotti similarly require careful ordering. The wide, irregular pasta ribbons of maltagliati ($16) are loaded with lovely foraged mushrooms and gain piquant crunch from toasted breadcrumbs, while the fabulous casunziei ($15), big crescent-shaped ravioli stuffed with roasted beets and dotted with poppy seeds, rest on a bed of smoked, pesto-flavored ricotta. But spaghetti alla busara ($17), while generously laden with fat shrimp, underwhelms with an allegedly spicy red sauce. Buckwheat bigoli ($16), with its pale-green pasta, is not the most eye-catching dish, but at least features a fine, deep-flavored duck ragù. Three nightly risotti boast a promisingly traditional, slightly soupy texture, but lack the creamy starchiness of endlessly stirred risotto. Good snails can’t rescue green garlic risotto ($21) from blandness, nor can chunks of cuttlefish elevate the glossy-black beauty of squid ink risotto ($19) above the pedestrian. Swoony restaurant risotto is notoriously elusive; SRV has not yet cracked that code.
Desserts include a nicely non-cliched tiramisu ($8) with bits of cloumage adding textural interest and some creditable housemade gelati ($3/scoop) like an unexpectedly buttermilk-tangy stracciatella with shreds of good chocolate. Service is uniformly polished and attentive, keeping up ably with prime-time hordes, abetted by architecture (an open wall that breaks up the large room) that keeps the noise level sprightly but not eardrum-punishing. In the end, SRV gets tantalizingly close to the soul of the bacaro, even if its broader ambition finds it fumbling some of the details. Subtract the impossible goal of recreating its distant, nostalgia-burnished model, and it succeeds as a brilliant, energetic, outsized neighborhood Italian restaurant, and that’s pretty fine by itself.
-Mackerel in saor
-Soft-boiled quail egg
-Vongole alla pescatora
Hours: Sun.-Wed., 5 pm-midnight, Thu.-Sat., 5 pm-1 am
Liquor: Full bar
SRV 569 Columbus Ave., Boston (617-536-9500) srvboston.com