Anxious times call for reliable comforts, whether the stress comes from Yuletide shopping or free-floating, tangerine-tinged apocalyptic anxiety. In such moments, the neighborhood bar/restaurant can be an essential refuge: a place to commiserate and cut loose with friends over pizza and brews. The new Area Four Boston is just such an oasis, though its ambiance, quality and prices reflect its setting in the South End’s tony Troy complex. And despite the emphasis on thin-crust pizzas, it’s a real restaurant, its gorgeous wood-fired oven bestowing charry flavor to serious dishes from around the Mediterranean.
Chef/co-owner Jeff Pond, who with partner Michael Krupp also operates Kendall Square’s original Area Four, opens his menu with bar bites that include a refined take on mozzarella sticks in the form of batter-fried crispy cheddar and hot honey ($6), as well as sweet/hot escabeche pickles ($6) with lovely oven-charred Fresno chilies. These snacks segue into beautifully composed vegetable dishes that get more depth from wood fire than animal fats. Darkly gorgeous, ginger-spiked curried beluga lentils ($10) get cooling contrast from thick herb yogurt. Charcoal-roasted baby carrots ($11) are served with mizuna, a peppery, leafy Asian green, chunks of barely caramelized apples and a sticky-sweet pumpkin-seed brittle. Thick, creamy tahini ($11) is dotted with roasted cauliflower and chickpeas, a fabulous dip for herby oven-toasted pita wedges. Charred greens ($10) are gently dusted with savory za’atar and given lovely tartness with sumac yogurt: reductive yet stunning. Only wood-roasted Chinese long beans ($9) miss the mark, undone by underdoneness and overly salty miso vinaigrette.
The kiss of wood fire also gets applied to proteins like charred octopus ($21), blackened but still tender, with an unusually ocean-evocative, briny quality, gently complemented by green tahini and chickpeas. Brasa chicken ($24 half, $42 whole) is big, juicy and crisp-skinned, served with creamy little roasted potatoes, maitake mushrooms and the fine one-two of garlic cream and chicken jus. Fernet-braised short rib (charged $29, listed on the menu at $25) gains more sweetness than bitterness from its amaro bath, but it’s a tender, thinly sliced, lean rendition of this perfect cold-weather dish, starchy heft provided by roasted root vegetables. Duck egg carbonara ($16) is another rare misfire, its buttery ribbon pasta weirdly crowned by a crunchy batter-coated duck egg. Trash fish and chips ($19) boasts a uniquely bubbly tempura coating (achieved with nitrogen infusion, like draft Guinness) and brilliant, crunchy potato wedges.
To the main event: pizza. Pond’s long practice with lightning-quick cooking of long-fermented dough in very hot wood ovens yields spectacular Neapolitan-style results: uniform cooking, bubbly outer edges and just enough charring above and below. The Margherita ($13) with housemade mozzarella, tomato, pecorino and whole basil leaves could not be simpler or better. The Carnivore ($17.50) adds modest amounts of soppressata, sausage and bacon to this base, though the two-egg add-on ($4) would be better if the kitchen didn’t deny us the joy of smearing the hot yolk around ourselves. The banh mi ($19) evokes the flavors of great Vietnamese sub sandwich with char siu pork belly, lightly pickled shredded carrots and daikon, cilantro and squiggled-on Sriracha aioli: delectable. The home run, though, is the Wellfleet clam and bacon ($17.50) with white clam sauce, pecorino, hot peppers and parsley. Loaded with briny, fresh-clam flavor, it’s now the version to beat in Boston (sorry, New Haven invaders). The lone dessert is a complimentary serving of dark-chocolate pudding laced with sea salt and topped with crème fraîche.
Bar managers Augusto Lino and Dan Lynch have put together one of the South End’s best beverage programs. Specialty cocktails ($11-$13, plus two draft highballs, $9) feature culinary accents or reincarnate ancient classics, as in the Improved Bourbon Cocktail ($13) of whiskey, maraschino, absinthe and bitters. The staff’s serious chops show in their ability to whip up a bracing hot toddy ($11) or eggy amaro flip ($12) without batting an eyelash. Twenty-four wines, sherries and vermouths by the glass ($7-$16) are perfectly serviceable, as in the nicely acidic, mineraly, seafood-friendly 2015 Argyros “Atlantis” ($14), an assyrtiko blend from Santorini, and occasionally brilliant, as in the 2015 Domaine Ledogar Roug’é-Clair ($14) carignan/grenache blend from Languedoc, a novel clairet halfway between a red and a rosé: smooth, cherryish, lightly tannic, very pretty. The list of 38 bottles ($38-$142, most under $60) could use a few more pizza-friendly, cheap-and-cheerful reds like the 2014 Alvaro Castro “Dac Tinto” ($42), a touriga nacional blend from Dao, Portugal: light-bodied, peppery, a little earthy, not too extravagant for Tuesday night.
Craft-beer buffs will twinkle at the list of 14 draft beers and ciders ($7-$10), mostly from Massachusetts and New England, and another 14 packaged options ($7-$13) drawn from Massachusetts, California, Michigan, Belgium and Germany. (Pay mind to ABV: Many of these are sneakily potent.) The open room feels casually groovy: dim lighting, minimalist furnishings, two turntables at the host stand, a projection TV and comfortably raucous noise levels. Service is amiable and competent, hustling pizzas from pass to table, an essential skill with fast-cooling pies. Arriving at the tail-end of a 2016 that many Bostonians would rather forget, the second Area Four can’t solve the world’s problems, but it sure is a cozy, tasty, hip-feeling spot to forget them a while.
-Curried beluga lentils
-Trash fish and chips
-Fernet-braised short rib
-Wellfleet clam and bacon pizza
-Banh mi pizza
Area Four Boston, 264 E. Berkeley St., Boston (857-317-4805) areafour.com/locations/troy-south-end; Hours: 5-11 pm, limited menu till 2 am; Reservations: Yes; Parking: Metered street spaces, nearby private lots; Liquor: Full bar