It’s not easy to staff a restaurant in Greater Boston in 2017, with national behemoths like Eataly constantly poaching talent from both front and back of the house. Imagine competing with that when trying to build a small new indie. So we took notice when Pammy’s, a new Italian-leaning spot co-owned by chef Chris Willis and his wife Pam, opened recently between Harvard and Central Squares with a cast of respected veterans like general manager Andrew Foster (ex-Fairsted Kitchen). The restaurant quickly shows what that kind of team can mean to a new place.
Complimentary bread by pastry chef Mareena McKenzie (ex-Shepard) done in the style of Puglia—rustic, hard-crusted, tenderly spongey within—sets an emblematic opening note: It’s terrific and includes semolina flour milled in-house. Grilled and garlic-rubbed, that bread crowns a parti-colored bowl of heirloom tomatoes ($9), needing nothing but their lush, peak-of-summer sweetness to impress. It’s there again under veal bruschetta ($16), which hides wonders under a blanket of stracchino: “umami tomatoes” with extraordinary depth from roasting and remarinating and a delectable, fork-tender mess of long-braised veal breast. Braised octopus ($17) with cubes of crispy polenta and the vivid interplay of red-pepper pesto and cucumber yogurt gets brilliant texture from long braising followed by flash-frying. Foie torchon ($18) offers a lovely bit of classic, creamy French charcuterie punched up with quartered Mission figs, a pistachio crust and a drizzle of sweet/tart saba.
With experience at Rialto, Willis has a real flair for pasta handmade from house-milled flour, as in his fusilli lunghi ($26), squiggly strands nesting a half-dozen littleneck-sized cockles with lightly blackened shishito peppers and a superb broth flavored with mussels (removed before serving) and lots of minced clams. The half-portion of fettucce alfredo ($13) is a marvel of Roman simplicity: little more than good Parmigiano, cream and a bit of starchy pasta water, here enlivened with crushed pink peppercorns and a few basil leaves, though oversaucing spoils the dish on one visit. No such misstep mars the lumache ($23), striated shells in a smashing Bolognese sauce cunningly dosed with Korean gochuchang to add subtle chili fire, sweetness and umami funk: original and amazing.
Thoughtful details likewise elevate traditional-sized entrees, like Arctic char ($27), a skillfully cooked, naked fillet underpinned with nutty farro with the chewy/sweet tang of dehydrated strawberries, though the fish needs more salt. From the price, one immediately knows that Wagyu bavette ($34) is a hybrid product lacking the fine marbling of Japanese luxury beef, but it’s a quality cut of flap steak with solid accompaniments: fat slices
of roasted cipollini, a snappy salsa verde, wheat berries dotted with golden raisins. It’s done perfectly to temperature on one visit, off by 10 degrees on another. Boneless pan-roasted half chicken ($29) novelly presents a big, flat disk of crisply browned skin-on breast meat encapsulating an inner layer of thigh, complemented with bitter endive, sweet castelvetrano olives and a great pan sauce. Red snapper ($28) also wows with juicy, crisp-skinned fillets in a fabulously complex, chili-hot sauce, given mild balance by cauliflower and acid from lime.
McKenzie’s desserts (all $11) are pretty and clever, as in her lovely crostata, a pastry pyramid enfolding peach chunks and great little wild blueberries alongside buttermilk ice cream, and a swoony, loose-textured, honey-drizzled yogurt panna cotta with plump blackberries, clusters of graham cracker crumbs and spheres of bee pollen. Bar manager Moe Isaza (ex-Tiger Mama) produces witty specialty cocktails like the In Other Words ($13), a mix of gin, yellow chartreuse and lime with the unexpected accent of briny black olives, and the Dipinto di Blu ($14) of gin, Campari, crème de cassis, lime, egg white and cream dusted with an artful swirl of black currant powder, like the hybrid of a Ramos Fizz and a Pink Lady. There’s a tight list of crafty, mostly American small-producer beers ($5-$12), with a macro-lager nod to non-beer nerds, and a goodly selection of Italian amari ($8-$12). Wine director Lauren Hayes (ex-Ten Tables) curates a terrific list of nicely priced American and Italian wines, with solid Tuscan standbys like the 2014 Montenidoli Vernaccia di San Gimignano ($44) and complex orange stunners like the 2015 Cantina Ribelà Saittole ($80), though we encountered temperature problems with more than one bottle.
Among Pammy’s more insistent graces is its lovely decor, providing a flattering glow from soft overhead lighting and a wood fireplace. Despite hard surfaces (exposed rafters, ceramic tile, an enormous gilt-framed mirror, white-painted and antique brick), there’s enough sound absorption from leather banquettes and abundant plants and flowers to keep noise levels comfortable. The communal table at the room’s center is double-width, echoing privacy-enhancing spacing throughout. Service ranges from informally relaxed and attentive to somewhat nervously over-attentive. To be fair, we began our research four weeks in, about half the buffer we usually afford to new places. A few kitchen and service flubs aren’t enough to undercut the ubiquitous Mrs. Willis’ warm hospitality, great drinks, a lovely room and high-technique food masquerading as simple food. Call it the charm of the paddling duck: strenuous effort below the surface, a smooth, gliding effect above. The Willises clearly want Pammy’s to feel like a modestly elevated, unpretentious neighborhood joint, but the polish and urbanity behind the facade are impossible to miss. ◆
Boneless pan-roasted half chicken
Pammy’s, 928 Mass. Ave., Cambridge (617-945-1761) pammyscambridge.com Hours: 5:30-10 pm, Mon.-Wed.; 5:30-11 pm, Thu.-Sat.; bar till 1 am, Mon.-Sat. Reservations: Yes Parking: Metered street spaces Liquor: Full bar