Bel Ari, the Leather District’s newest Italian restaurant, is a bit of a puzzle. It has good bones in the form of a lovely industrial design in shades of black, silver and gray. It has good genes in chef Robert Fathman, a long-admired veteran who also runs the kitchen of nearly next-door sibling Les Zygomates. One co-owner runs Pastene, the venerable Italian-foods producer and importer, whose products feature prominently on the menu. The waitstaff is fresh-faced and eager to please, hustling hard around the airy, spacious, noisy bar and dining room. So why, more than two months into its maiden voyage, is the experience here so maddeningly uneven?
A Negroni ($9) arrives all wrong one night, subbing lemon for sweet vermouth (ick), but is perfectly executed on another. The specialty cocktail list centers on light, refreshing originals that favor muddled fruit and something bubbly, as in the Tesoro ($11) of fresh blackberries, honey syrup, Aperol and splashes of prosecco and seltzer. The wine list leans heavily on big, overly familiar vintners, but at least there are 27 options by the glass ($9-$30, most under $14). The bottle list includes 10 sparklers ($45-$425), 25 whites ($30-$90) and 47 reds ($36-$235), while the deep-pocketed can browse from 50 trophy wines on the reserve list ($140-$3,600, most under $400). More typical are relatively lightweight wines like a 2009 Masi Campofiorin Valpolicella Veneto ($48), with its ripasso-process hints at the character of much pricier Amarones, and the 2010 Corte alla Flora Vino Nobile di Montepulciano ($52), with its muddy, spicy fruit and the thin, short finish typical of modest Tuscan reds.
The complimentary bread basket’s best offerings are flat, salty breadsticks, but they are missing some evenings, leaving only slices of bland, fluffy Italian loaf to sop up some respectable EVOO. Small plates deliver the most reliable doses of joy: semolina cakes ($6) are delectably crisp and airy, with sharp accents of good Taleggio, lardo and sea salt. The smoky, bright tomato sauce and tangy goat cheese on lamb meatballs ($8) compensate for their slight chewiness. Roasted shishito peppers ($6) with olive oil and smoked salt prove once again to be irresistible, occasionally incendiary and impossible to screw up. Whipped ricotta ($8) with honey and a heavy dusting of crushed pistachios, served with brittle slices of date bread, is almost sweet enough to serve for dessert, but its simplicity and contrasting textures are nonetheless winning. Lobster mac ($10) made with ditalini pasta boasts only cursory flecks of lobster meat, but its creamy sauce with excellent sharp cheese and mercifully subtle use of the often-deadly truffle oil is surprisingly satisfying for a done-to-death dish. A plate of housemade salumi ($22 for three, $32 for five) shows admirable craft, especially in bites of deep-flavored boar salami, nicely fat-edged coppa and tender, carmine-tinged bresaola, well paired with jams, olives and caper berries.
Middle courses are decidedly iffier, with kitchen pacing a persistent problem, as in a 50-minute interval between small plates and appetizers one night. At last, here is our long-awaited iron pot of pan-roasted Manila clams and mussels ($14); alas, it is stone cold. House-made spaghetti ($22) is loaded with fine small clams, but demonstrates how fresh pasta is not always superior to dried: The spaghetti is limp and mealy. Worse, two advertised ingredients, pancetta and bottarga—especially the latter, with its gorgeous, salty funk—are nearly undetectable, a serious omission when the dish’s sauce otherwise registers as weak chicken stock. Pici hand-rolled pasta ($19) fares rather better with its twisted strands of fresh pasta, cubes of crisped pancetta and intense olives, but its almost deconstructed form, with an anchovy and tomato left whole, is an odd, off-putting choice.
In a neighborhood with increasingly serious options for Neapolitan-style pies, a classic pizza margherita ($15) with tomato sauce, buffalo mozzarella and basil tastes underseasoned and underdone; its sauce needs salt, its crust a bit of char. Secondi demonstrate more dependable execution. Pan-seared scallops ($30) are prettily presented on a long, narrow plate as five sweet, perfectly browned, seriously plump specimens on squash puree. Grilled housemade pork sausage ($27) has the coarse, almost crumbly texture of cotechino; nesting atop a stew of white beans, chard and tomato ragu, it’s a supremely rich, comforting dish for a wintery night.
But desserts are another gamble, from a tired umpteenth iteration of tiramisu ($8), to a dry, unmemorable crostate pignoli ($8) with fig marmellata, to a beautiful, intense cioccolato torte ($8) with little piles of bitter cocoa nibs and a big scoop of caramel white chocolate gelato. In concept, talent, location and ambiance, Bel Ari has many of the elements that it needs to succeed. But to draw crowds and raves over the long term, it will have to overcome that most stubborn and pernicious of restaurant bugbears: The tendency to deliver A-minus performances with certain dishes on some evenings, and D-pluses on others. If it can get to the point of earning a solid B across its menu, night in and night out, Bel Ari may yet emerge as a winner.
-Grilled pork sausage
Hours: Lunch, Mon.-Fri., 11:30 am-2:30 pm; Dinner, Mon.-Wed., 5-10 pm, Thu.-Sat., 5-10:30 pm;
Parking: Street; valet available Tue.-Sat. evenings
Liquor: Full license
Bel Ari 107 South St., Boston (617-259-1560) belariboston.com