This space was Via Valverde, a fairly expensive North End bistro that morphed and changed names. In an uncertain market where most operators are looking down, the owners of Tresca decided to raise prices. Food begins justifiably exquisite, but droops toward dessert, and the tone is not what it needs to be.
FOOD BEGINS: exquisitely at Tresca but droops by dessert.
Dinner starts with a fine basket of crusty white bread, fine crunchy breadsticks, and a salty cracker-bread topped with a little cheese. With this come pours of an absolutely superb extra-virgin olive oil. Appetizers are very good. (We also sampled from a pair of $65 four-course tasting menus — ordinarily designed for a whole table, and a reasonable buy for big eaters, even though the final course is cheese rather than dessert.) Capesante Veneziane ($13) is a huge sea scallop in a fine tomato-cream sauce, on a giant scallop shell, the shell balanced on salt. While the price to value ratio of even very-large sea scallop appetizers is low, I’ve never been disappointed by one. Our other tasting menu brought a hockey puck of re-grilled polenta garnished with a shaving of cheese, wild mushrooms, and a salty glaze sauce — good enough for the regular menu.
Soup of the day our night was a cold tomato cream ($8), garnished with chopped grilled sea scallops — probably the smaller ones in the shipment. It wasn’t too creamy, and actually was refreshingly close to gazpacho. Gamberoni croccante ($12) was four enormous shrimp fried with something very much like tempura batter, the whole delight made fancy with a clever salad of shredded melon and onion.
The tasting menu brought a pasta course of rigatoni Norma ($18/à la carte), which was very al dente in the new and authentic fashion, and a solid red sauce with eggplant and Parmesan. I had ordered a half-order of tagliatelli Bolognese ($12/half; $20/full) to test whether Tresca could do red-sauce pasta. But the tasting menu’s rigatoni already answered this in the affirmative, and when the waiter accidentally brought papardelle piemontesi ($12/$20), I refused to let go of it. The smell of wild mushrooms and truffle oil was just too good, and so were the wide ribbons of homemade pasta, with slices of porcini, baby bellas, portabellas, and shitake (shitake are wild mushrooms in Japan, I guess).
Struzzo modenese ($31), ostrich to us, is a fun entrée. It’s presented as duck-breast-like medallions with roasted red onion and a pretty garnish of fresh green fava beans and spinach. Vitelle dello Toscana ($34) is a porterhouse veal chop, almost two inches thick, possibly a little overdone, but entirely delicious and served with garlicky broccoli rabe, a little bitter still.
The tasting dinners had something for everyone, offering both a filet di manzo ($30/à la carte) — filet mignon on a French menu — served with mashed potatoes and grilled asparagus; and a cioppino ($30/à la carte), saffron-tomato broth with two large slices of toasted bread, lobster, shrimp, three littleneck clams, and several fine New Zealand mussels.
The wine list is all-Italian and substantially red, especially the older bottles, which are basically Barbarescos and Barolos from $225 to $9000. You know you’re not in Kansas anymore when the bottle on the table is described as a house special, at $55. But I felt fine with one of the cheapest wines on the list, the 2003 Barbera d’Alba from Filippo Gallino ($29). The overheated vintage made for a too-soft barbera, but one rich with fruit and only a little alcohol showing. A glass of white 2003 sauvignon blanc ($10), made by Torre Rosazza in the northern province of Friulli, had a faint but clean flowery nose and a dry, easy palate. Go for the hot vintages in the cooler places. Decaf coffee ($3.50) was weak but clean; tea ($3.50) is a selection of bags served in a cup of hot water — not classy at these prices.
Dessert was not a strong course, but the cheese platter ($14) was excellent, with a creamy, rich Gorgonzola; a ripe taleggio almost as rich as French double-cream cheeses; and a fine, sharper pecorino Toscana. Although the garnish was just-sliced Granny Smith apples, grapes, breadsticks, and candied figs, the vivid flavors of the cheeses were all we needed.
On a dolci tasting ($35), I liked the zabaglione ($8/à la carte) served in a martini glass: creamy custard sauce with blueberries and a hint of mint. Sogno del ciocolato ($9) assumes that one dreams of chocolate in the form of a slice of mousse-layered cake and a scoop of rich chocolate ice cream. Could be. Crostata di fragola ($9) had a rich cookie crust, a bit of pastry cream, and decently ripe strawberries. It was garnished with a sharp gelato that might have had some balsamic vinegar in it. The “North End classic” ($9), three types of cannoli, had one kind with classic ricotta filling, one with a mousse-like chocolate filling, and one with a green mousse-like filling that had no discernable flavor but was supposed to be pistachio. It did have an intriguing scoop of ice cream, which might have been buttermilk flavored. In the authentic version of this dessert, all cannolis are served with ricotta-based fillings, and they all have good taste. Ordering à la carte, you might go for the assorted gelati ($7).