PLAY MISTO FOR ME: The grilled misto platter comprises a whole squid shell, a lobster tail, shrimp, and real sea scallops.
To find Off the Boat Seafood, a South Italian take-out joint that just this winter added a 10-table dining room and a wine list, mainlanders will pass through the Callahan Tunnel and embark on an exercise so challenging it's not unlike finding the Northwest Passage. You should definitely go with a group, not only for navigation help, but also to deal with the enormous portions in this onetime Phoenix "On the Cheap" pick gone bistro.
|Off the Boat Seafood | 26 Porter Street, East Boston | 617.561.8800 | offtheboatseafood.com | Open Tuesday–Thursday, 11 am–9 pm, and Friday and Saturday, 11 am–10 pm | AE, DI, MC, VI | beer and wine | Sidewalk-level access | No valet parking|
Despite adding a second storefront, the dining room is still small enough for you to order by smell. Subtle it is not, except for the Saturday night special of "Zia Maria's Homemade Tripe" ($13.95). (And for that, you best get there early, because the take-out customers are apt to nab it all.)
But don't let that special throw you off; this is indeed a seafood restaurant, in which veal, chicken, and the like are just menu tokens. In fact, your first 10 minutes here will likely mirror those spent at a micro-bistro, soaking up light, fruity olive oil with crusty, dense white bread. Check out what everyone else is having while you wait. It all looks good, but the aroma is even more superb.
My favorite of the appetizers was the "Calamari Avellino" ($9.95), rings of offshore squid cooked tender in a fine tomato sauce. I liked it so well I borrowed some for my "Polipo Ovi" ($12.95), a ridiculously large octopus appetizer with caramelized onions on top and salad underneath. Here you get a whole animal, whereas a lot of restaurants might give you just three tentacles. (I don't think the owners pound it on rocks with a wooden mallet, as they would in Italy. They probably just boil it a little, then grill it up quickly for a nice char.) My only complaint: it could use a sauce. If not the marinara or the optional fra diavolo (hot pepper) from the calamari, then perhaps the melted butter from a special appetizer of steamer clams ($10.95), which were a smidge sandy, but plump and sweet as you please.
"Escargo" ($10.95) were not off the boat, since these are vineyard snails. But the restaurant has had a new idea for their preparation: mix them with mushrooms and tomatoes and present them on toast, like bruschetta.
If you didn't order the octopus appetizer, you'll have plenty of room left to overwhelm yourself with any of several entrées. Lucky you. The grilled misto platter ($24.95) gives you a whole squid shell — about half the size of the octopus — plus a lobster tail, shrimp, and real sea scallops. All feature crosshatch grill marks and a salad.
For distilled pleasurable excess, it's hard to beat the plate of baked scallops ($19.95) with buttered crumbs. Despite the topping, it's the full flavor of seasonal sea scallops that shines through. A side of pilaf reinforced by a meaty stock or base is hearty in itself. And if it's an absolute diet killer you're after, try the "Seafood Alla Allison" ($23.95), who takes her shrimp, scallops, and lobster with garlic and cream over a vast heap of fusili pasta — the latter unfortunately fully cooked.
Now, about that tripe: a heavenly bowl of red "gravy," the meat slow-cooked to a melting texture and a rich flavor, with only a whiff of the barnyard for complexity. The waitress needed two trips to the kitchen to verify that there was some left. (Zia Maria herself probably was checking me out on a hidden camera to see if I was qualified to order such a thing.) But it was worth the effort — this was superb peasant food, and not something you'd want to make at home. They brought extra bread to help clean the plate.
The newly introduced wine list was set up by someone with a nose for . . . economy. We had a bottle of the 2007 A by Acacia chardonnay ($7/glass; $25/bottle). I remember the excitement of the early Acacia single-vineyard chardonnays and pinot noirs, made in the French style. This bottle has done the cheap trans-California line proud. It may be the best low-cost chardonnay out there, a clean blend with a balance of oak and acidity, mild fruit aromas, and not a hint of the press-wine bite that used to mar all inexpensive California whites.
Even more impressive, Off the Boat has mastered espresso ($2.50), decaf cappuccino ($3.50), and decaf "Americano" ($2). Those will set you up for any of the three desserts: an entirely competent cannolo ($5); a chocolate-vanilla bomba ($5), an ice-cream cue ball encased in chocolate candy; or a "tropical" bomba ($5) with mango and passion-fruit flavors in white chocolate. I think these bombas are in fact off the boat — the one from Italy, that is. They're delicious and refreshing, so I say let the cooks concentrate on those scallops and octopi and leave the desserts to those who've mastered it.