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Everything you’re looking for — nothing more
By ROBERT NADEAU  |  June 14, 2006
4.0 4.0 Stars

Why is one pretentious and expensive North End bistro better than another? Because it delivers on every course.

Because the music runs smoothly from Sinatra to Sade.

Because the service is genuinely warm and does not constantly interrupt to ask if everything is all right. Have you noticed how often that happens now? I thought I was getting recognized, but not six restaurants in a row — a streak interrupted only at Eclano. Sometimes a restaurant stands out by having, say, what seems to be the one neighborhood server on all of Salem Street who talks about things like how no one used to go to restaurants in the North End “because we all ate at home.” Does anyone besides me notice the difference between servers who have that kind of conversation and servers who take away your plates with food on them, saying, “Are you still working on that?” What is it about serving $30-plus entrées that requires so many server visits to ask how things are? Is it a spiritual exercise designed to remind us that there are some things money can’t buy — such as privacy and dignity?

To digress for a moment: on my recent trip to Spain, I spent an evening at La Maestranza in Seville, a historic bullfight arena comparable to Wrigley Field or Fenway Park. Spanish bullfighting may be brutal and cruel to animals, but it’s the one sporting event with no sponsor logos, no cheerleaders, no halftime show, no souvenir hawkers, and no interruptions. It starts right on time, and bullfighting is the whole show: men in tights getting into the ring with half-ton fighting bulls and killing them with swords. They do this for two-and-a-half hours, walk once around the ring to cheers, and everyone leaves. There are no doping scandals, no corked swords, and no one goes around to the expensive seats in the shade asking if everything is all right.

Back to Eclano, the Wrigley Field of North End bistros. The bread choices are over-complicated, so our server just tongs one of each to everyone. There is a rosemary focaccia, a cranberry focaccia (better than it sounds), and a gray, chewy loaf, salty — what’s that flavor? Ground-up black olives! Even better is the silky, oily eggplant spread — a vegan’s answer to foie gras.

The appetizer of the moment is the chef’s house “salume” and antipasto for two ($18). Considering that Salem Street was all butcher shops only a few decades ago, it’s ironic that chefs up and down the street are stuffing sausage casings in the quiet hours. But at Eclano the results are impressive. In addition to bresaola (air-dried beef), there’s a truffled hard salami and a Tuscan version with juniper berries. There are also some artichokes and cheeses, but the most amazing thing on the platter is eggplant sautéed in lots of incredible olive oil. If they served this eggplant with the bread, no one would order anything else.
The gnocchi ($8) appetizer is actually a single gnoccho. It’s a creamy dumpling the size of a crab cake, grilled on one side, and served with a superb marinara and a vertical sail of Parmesan fried crisp. A hearts-of-romaine salad ($8) has a trick ingredient: fresh lemon juice. With some roasted garlic and salty aged cheese in the dressing as well, it tastes more Caesar than Caesar salad.

At least on quiet nights, Eclano is very willing to make half-orders without a surcharge. We had a half-order of spinach salad ($8/full; $4/half), a little wilted with lots of pancetta (cubed bacon) and hazelnuts, which was unusually good.

Pasta at such places is increasingly al dente, as proven by our order of rigatoni gigante ($15), the homemade version of those large tubes with strips of sautéed eggplant, a great tomato sauce touched up with basil, and ricotta salata cheese to take the edge off the sauce. New on the menu — and even chewier — is “scialatelli” ($18), a homemade triangle-shaped flat pasta in a salty stew of fresh cherry tomatoes, manila clams, and a bit of garlicky oil.

As for the entrées, there is much to be said for the simple rosemary-chicken breast ($23), with its crisp crust, plump meat, and carefully restrained rosemary kept below the excessive pine-y level. It’s served with green beans and twice-baked fingerling potatoes. A special on codfish with four large prawns ($32) had the buttery, melting quality of fresh local cod, and a subtle onion sauce.

The wine list is all Italian and hence mostly red, although California technology has done wonderful things for Italian white wines, even from southern regions. I am rethinking my trick of ordering less-expensive wines from the super-hot Mediterranean summer of 2003. I’ve had some outstanding barbera and dolcetto from this vintage, but sometimes, as with the Baroli barbera d’Alba ($35) on this list, the acidity of the grape that goes so well with tomato sauces gets roasted out, and the wine becomes as soft and fruity as California merlot, only more so.

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