Of the multitude of restaurants in Boston’s North End, perhaps 80 percent serve a very square rendition of Italian-American fare. One can imagine sailing down Hanover Street on a raft of garlic bread over a river of marinara, past islets of fried calamari and cheese-capped mountains of breaded cutlets. There’s good reason so few places stray from this formula: Folks come here to be comforted with the familiar, not challenged. So give credit to the tiny new Parla. On the most culinarily conservative boulevard in Boston, it serves Italian cuisine that appears to have beamed in from another planet—or at least a future where food dehydrators are commonplace.
Chef Eric Buonagurio gleaned some flashy technique from former boss Jason Santos at Blue Inc.: He shares Santos’ penchant for intricate platings, Asian flavors and modernist tools like handheld smokers. A small plate of pork belly ($7) nests four slabs of roasted Korabuta belly atop black-pepper aioli and dusts them with smoked salt, nuggets of dehydrated lime juice and nasturtium flowers. That clearly ain’t Italian, but certainly is delicious. Smoked scallop shish kebab ($3.50) skewers a fat smoked scallop with a disk of bacon and a cube of roasted pineapple; again, it’s of uncertain provenance but inarguably scrumptious. Other piatti piccoli are more recognizably Italian(-American), like fine, crisp arancini ($9) filled with delectable braised oxtail and peas, flanked by good roasted-tomato marinara; quality but stingily portioned salume ($5), recently a few thin slices of Calabrese salami with olive oil powder; and lovely, tender wild boar meatballs ($9) with red sauce and shaved parmesan.
A salad of baby octopus ($13) is an unqualified success, with wee, miso-marinated heads and tentacles atop thin-sliced pickled cucumber and flecks of tobiko; dip into the liquid dots on the plate’s rim for faint accents of Thai basil and squid ink. Heirloom tomato caprese ($11) is graced by good burrata and artful smears of hyssop pesto and black-garlic puree, but marred by inexplicably ordinary late-summer tomatoes. Summer vegetable salad ($10) offers no disappointment: Its mix of baby greens, sweet peppers, strawberry-balsamic dressing and excellent smoked blue cheese is less inventive but more successful.
Larger plates similarly alternate between ravishing and puzzlingly ordinary. Lobster ravioli ($27) features serviceable house-made ravioli in cauliflower puree with wild mushrooms and pea greens, but I expected some lobster meat to be stuffed into the ravioli, not just lying atop it. By contrast, ramen noodle “carbonara” ($23) is terrific, an Italianate take on Japanese alkaline-noodle soup, with superb slabs of pork belly, a soft-poached egg and bitter broccoli rabe in a dashi broth endowed with deep, salty flavor by guanciale. Lamb leg fettuccine ($22) is wonderful in an entirely different way: Its chewy housemade pasta ribbons swim in an earthy, rich ragù of braised lamb leg, English peas and wild mushrooms. Local striped bass ($28) boasts a beautifully cooked fillet arrayed gorgeously atop black quinoa, framed with green beans and topped with artichoke relish. Picture-pretty, it’s layered with intriguing tastes of saffron aioli and citrus pudding.
The short dessert menu offers a mad-scientist take on s’mores ($7): smoked vanilla ice cream, a smear of chocolate sauce, chocolate-mint ganache cubes, kiss-shaped marshmallows flavored with pink peppercorns and piles of granulated graham crackers, served under a dome lifted tableside to release—voila!—a cloud of wood smoke. It’s goofy, high-concept fun.
The pocket-sized room kitschily evokes a Prohibition-era speakeasy with Deco signage, framed period newspapers, Edison bulbs and reclaimed wood, though I doubt many actual speakeasies featured cushy leather banquettes or French windows. But the bar program is one of the North End’s most interesting, eking the most out of a beer/wine/cordial license. The Atlantic City Smash ($10) house-infuses Barr Hill gin with lemongrass and kaffir lime, then adds lime juice, basil and good tonic: a bracing summer refresher. And the Pistolero Fizz ($12) mixes smoky crema de mescal with allspice dram liqueur, lemon, honey and egg white, like a Ramos Fizz in a Tiki hut on a Mexican beach.
The short, affordable wine list—28 bottles, plus 16 by the glass—features food-friendly whites like Sicily’s 2012 Mandrarossa fiano ($9/$34), all peaches and lemons, and the ruby-red 2012 Hofstatter Meczan pinot nero ($11/$42) from Trentino, with its whiff of smoked cherries. Beer drinkers will appreciate the tight list of 15 bottles and two drafts focused on small American craft brewers. The tiny front-of-house staff admirably juggles hosting, serving and bartending duties, though the precision mixology can be a service bottleneck if the whole room is drinking cocktails. But both waitstaff and kitchen work hard enough to make the occasional pacing problem or dull dish forgivable. In a neighborhood with wan standards for inventiveness, it’s no great trick for Parla to shine.
-Baby octopus salad
-Ramen noodle “carbonara”
-Lamb leg fettuccine
-Local striped bass
Hours: Daily, 4 pm-midnight; Sun. brunch, 11 am-3 pm
Liquor: Beer, wine and “cordials”
Parla 230 Hanover St., Boston (617-367-2824) parlaboston.com