Open for Dinner – 7 Days
Lunch – Monday through Friday
This review was updated in December 2015. You can read that review here.
It has been twenty five years since Mario Balicich opened the doors to 88 Charles Street – back in 1987. The building had been the original home of custom motorcycle builders Orange Country Choppers, who had relocated to larger quarters. Chef Balicich retooled the space for dining instead of cycle building, and the rest – as they say – is history. The successful business outgrew the original space, and nine years ago another dining room was added on the west side of the building, which looks out over the trellised grape vines surrounding the parking area, and – on the night we were there – a spectacular sunset. The room is set with white linen covered tables and bentwood bistro chairs. The waitstaff looks more starched than the service will turn out to be. The crisp white aprons and formal black ties and vests can’t overshadow the casual friendly banter with their favorite regulars.
We were hardly regulars; it had been a few years since our Wednesday night dining crew had stopped in for dinner. Mario did recognize Doc and that probably accounted for the platter of antipasto that arrived at our table while we perused the menu. Heaped with piles of roasted sweet and hot Italian peppers, spicy and sweet dried sausages, roasted eggplant and big chunks of Grana Padano cheese, the dish should have been more than enough to count as our appetizers. But no – that would be taking advantage of the owner’s hospitality.
Our waiter arrived with a side cart for preparing what turned out to be a wonderful Caesar salad. The traditional continental table side preparation was infused with interjections of “Anchovies?” – “Yes?” – “Everybody?” – “Lotsa garlic?” – “How spicy?” – “Little mustard?” Salad design by committee (or at least he let us think we were helping) and still pretty good.
The restaurant’s extensive regular menu is complemented each night with a few specials. The Italian continental classics are all in attendance – clams oregenato, eggplant rollatini, chicken piccatta, veal francese, fettuccine Alfredo, osso bucco Milanese style. A waiter was at an adjacent table flambeing a roast duckling with brandy, which is usually enough to seduce someone else in the dining room to join them. It was, but Doc is an easy mark. Dennis was most impressed with the kitchen’s offering of osso bucco, the braised meat falling off a sizable shank bone filled with marrow. George opted for an evening special – grilled swordfish. I spied a menu offering that I had not seen in years – veal Valdostana ($24.75) – pockets of veal loin, stuffed with emmental cheese and thin slices of cured prosciutto, and served in a savory mushroom sauce. Very nicely done indeed.
Our waiter followed up a failed effort to tempt us with dessert by placing a bottle of Sambucca on our table, along with a bottle of Mario’s own creation – twelve year old home made grappa. I have tasted more than my fair share of home made grappa over the years, and my reaction is usually the same. I have not found a good use for it since I quit smoking – it makes a good Zippo lighter fluid substitute. Not so with this bottle, though – it was actually quite delicious, more like an un-casked brandy than a grappa – not at all astringent, with an aromatic nose and a most un-grappa like subtle finish. A perfect ending to a great meal.
There are always good reasons that restaurants are still thriving after twenty five years in business. Good food, good service, good value. This place also has one special, somewhat unique, ingredient that gives them a big advantage. The owner is out front in the dining room, and he is a natural “front of the house” man. That in itself is not unique, but what is is that the owner is also an accomplished chef who knows exactly what is supposed to be happening back in the kitchen. It shows.
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