As every local food geek knows, the joys in Boston’s dining scene are not limited to soigné downtown spots with extensive menus and glam rooms. Our suburbs are dotted with culinary riches too, and talented chefs with a tight focus on a few items can be found working out of food-court stalls and food trucks all across Greater Boston. The true chowhound’s nose is open to the scent of excellence in many forms. Follow it, and you may stumble on a new spot like Commune Kitchen, which is serving a menu dominated by pizzas and tartines out of an unprepossessing storefront on a quiet street near Arlington Center.
The tartine (rhymes with sardine), an open-faced sandwich by any other name, seems like an odd choice to devote half your menu to. How good can a single slice of bread with a few toppings be? It helps to start with good bread, and Commune bakes astonishing bread, thanks to co-owners Justin Demers and Richard Niedzwiecki’s experience at Brookline’s Clear Flour Bread, one of Greater Boston’s finest boulangeries. It is a simply transporting half whole-wheat sourdough boule, long fermented from a Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis starter, yielding a stiff crust and tender crumb. Every customer should take home a loaf ($7 whole, $4 half). For the tartine, Demers slices this great bread thick, grills it gently and tops it with pristine ingredients prepared and assembled with an artistry that reflects the fine-dining chops he honed at Somerville’s beloved indie Bergamot.
For your late breakfast, there’s a bacon and eggs tartine ($7.25) topped with thick, crisp bacon, delicately soft-scrambled eggs, pimiento cheese that actually tastes of briny/hot pimientos, fresh cilantro and caramelized onions brilliantly sweetened with brown sugar and given smoky heat with Spanish pimentón. Charcuterie tartine ($7.75) tops creamy beef-liver mousse and a beautiful, fat-wrapped slice of pâté de campagne with a squiggle of sweet blackberry preserves, a few leaves of arugula and a sprinkling of sea salt. Cherry crunch tartine ($7.25) could serve as dessert (or a breakfast for the waffles-and-syrup set) with its topping of housemade almond butter, macerated cherries, drizzle of dark chocolate and chunks of honeycomb crunch: toffee-like caramelized honey given a bubbly texture with baking soda. This level of refinement needs a fancy French moniker.
Twelve-inch pizzas similarly benefit from Commune’s cunning way with long-fermented dough, which produces a fantastically bubbly, lightly charred crust of medium thickness in the middle and a tall outer rim. The simple cheese pizza ($9.75) offers a thicker-crusted version of the Neapolitan classic margherita pie of fresh mozzarella, piquant marinated tomatoes, fresh basil and a judicious shower of olive oil. Another $1.50 adds a blanket of quality thin-sliced, large-bore pepperoni. The vegetarian pie ($11.50) is surprisingly fierce, topping a gentle white sauce with lightly grill-blackened and acerbic broccoli rabe, a load of dark cremini mushrooms, toasted pine nuts with a popcorn-like flavor and crunch and an insistently fragrant thyme gremolata. Porchetta pizza ($11.50) features slices of superb slow-roasted pork shoulder rolled around layers of herbs, garlic and breadcrumbs, counterpointed by the black-peppery zip of fresh parsley and the lovely acid and heat of pickled cherry pepper, some bland kale doing no harm. Meatball pizza ($11.50) is another stunner: rich beef meatball halves atop good red sauce, a bright pesto, little slices of summer squash, a few curls of crisp onion strings and a lot of finely shaved parmesan.
Two sides are built on excellent french fries: Seasoned house fries ($5.50) are good by themselves with their BBQ-chips-like seasoning, better dipped in garlic/herb aioli, while the dauntingly generous plate of poutine ($7.25) comes with copious chunks of squeaky housemade mozzarella, a velvety beef gravy and sliced scallions. The carb-averse have one option, a vibrant grilled romaine salad ($7.25) dressed in a Green Goddess-like creamy chimichurri and dotted with fresh corn niblets, red onion, goat cheese and chives in a portion big enough to be meal-sized.
Outside of lunch and dinner, Commune serves as a free-Wi-Fi-equipped cafe built for lingering, with a battery of serviceable drip and espresso coffee drinks ($1.25-$3.25), teas ($1.75-$3.50), sodas flavored with Italian syrups ($2.50) and housemade soft drinks like a bracing, fizzy blackberry lemonade ($3.25). The handful of sweets include a terrific chocolate croissant ($3) and big cookies like a zingy gingersnap ($2.50). The two rooms have a charmingly shambling feel, with their mustard stucco walls, clunky chandeliers, ceramic-tile tables left over from the previous Mexican-restaurant tenant, church pews for banquettes, antique mirrors, random thrift-store art, comfy but worn armchairs and a free lending library.
A couple of sidewalk two-tops provide a sunny view of Commune’s placid residential surroundings. You’ll order at the counter and bus your own table. The place has an unmistakable neighborhood feel: There’s always a family with a small child in the room and locals moseying by to get the paper and a scratchie at the nearby convenience store. It is hard to imagine a non-local driving by and thinking, “That little Commune Kitchen joint looks like it might be hiding something amazing.” Kudos to you if you have that kind of instinct, but even if you don’t, now you know it does too.
- -Bacon and eggs tartine
- -Charcuterie tartine
- -Vegetarian pizza
- -Porchetta pizza
- -Meatball pizza
- -Grilled romaine salad
- -Sourdough boule to-go
Commune Kitchen 203A Broadway, Arlington (781-777-2597) commune-kitchen.com; Hours: Wed.-Sun., noon-8 pm; Reservations: No; Parking: Plentiful free street spaces; Liquor: None