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4 Jan

Mast’ Restaurant

Photographed by Jazz Martin

Take your taste buds on an Italian holiday with true Neapolitan dishes, served up by a master chef.

With Thanksgiving behind us and Christmas around the corner, the word “gather” appears in our collective vocabulary and pops up in holiday advertisements.

Its recurring popularity is attributed to fond memories, conjuring up the spirit and warmth of the holiday season: a time when busy friends and far-flung family can get together, relax and reconnect. As a Chicago native, I cherish the rare visits made by my family and friends from the Midwest—and I don’t want to waste valuable time cooking a meal—so I’m always looking for a casual, inviting restaurant in which to gather.

My best friend is in town for a weekend visit, so we make plans to catch up over dinner at MAST’, a modern bistro that recently caught my eye. Tucked away from the boisterous atmosphere of Downtown Crossing, MAST’ offers traditional, southern Italian cuisine and a craft cocktail list, not to mention a unique name (a Neapolitan slang term meaning “master craftsman”).

On first impression, MAST’ does not disappoint. This is definitely not your average, red-checkered-vinyl-tablecloth type of Italian restaurant. I walk into a modern, industrial aesthetic, complete with Edison bulb light fixtures, trendy concrete floors, exposed brick pillars, large gilt mirrors, and a hammered metal ceiling. The music is unobtrusive, as are the intimate grouping of tables flanked by low-backed leather benches, comfortably suited for long conversations. Large, circular tables are placed alongside the wall of floor-to-ceiling windows—the perfect gathering place in which to share a delicious meal.

I take a seat at the spacious, brass-studded bar until my visitor arrives. The focal point of the room is behind the polished copper countertop—a huge, handcrafted Neapolitan pizza oven—which, according to owner and executive chef, Marco Caputo, is capable of baking an artisan pizza in as little as three minutes. Born and raised in Naples, Caputo began cooking at the age of 17 and has worked as an executive chef in both Italy and Spain. As such, his dedication to authenticity led him to recently overhaul the menu at MAST’, now boasting pasta made in-house, Neapolitan street food and gourmet ingredients such as quail, venison and wild boar.

Upon her arrival, my friend and I are seated at one of the only tables available. The room is filled with conversation, laughter and the satisfying sound of cutlery scraping empty plates. We begin with the antipasti menu, which includes dishes like classic calamari fritti, rughetta and polpette, to name a few, but I just have to try the cartoccio Napoletano, commonly sold on the streets of Naples. Plated in a small metal fry basket lined with brown waxed paper, the assorted finger foods—zucchini blossoms, arancine, polenta, zeppole and potato croquettes—are delightfully crispy, tender and indulgent. My guest’s cestino Caprese is vibrant and fresh; plump red and orange tomatoes are tucked into a yellow bell pepper, surrounded by creamy mozzarella and topped with a basil pesto.

Next up, a MAST’ specialty: pizza baked in the aforementioned wood-burning pizza oven. With an entire menu dedicated to artisan pizza, it is hard to choose just one, but the allure of fresh shrimp, as found on the gamberi e pesto pie, is hard to resist. Large, translucent shrimp top a traditional, thin crust and perfectly melted cheese, drizzled with fresh basil pesto. My friend quips that Bostonians are spoiled—shrimp doesn’t look or taste nearly as good back in the Midwest.

Refilling our wine glasses with an excellent red, a 2013 Barbera d’Asti, the server presents our choice off the pasta menu: bucatini all’Amatriciana. Having recently returned from a Roman vacation, I am looking forward to having fresh, hand-made pasta once again. It looks (and smells) absolutely delicious; the bright red tomato sauce is generously sprinkled with Pecorino Romano, topping a generous portion of hearty pasta that is peppered with rich morsels of pancetta. With one bite I am transported back to the cobbled streets and quaint cafes of Rome.

The stinco di agnello, a slow-braised lamb shank served with grilled asparagus and paccheri pasta, arrives as I savor the last bite of my bucatini. My guest and I exchange good-natured complaints regarding how full we are before digging into the succulent lamb in front of us. It is so tender that the meat literally falls off the bone and has a smoky, rich flavor—the perfect antidote to wintry New England weather.

Despite mutual levels of gastronomic satisfaction, I insist that we order tiramisu for the complete Italian-meal experience. It does not surprise me that the restaurant’s take on a classic, Italian dessert is nothing short of amazing. The delicate texture of the cake is impeccably balanced with notes of coffee, mascarpone and rum for a fantastic finish to our evening.

As we prepare to leave the cozy confines of the dining room, I am sold. Everything about MAST’—the relaxed atmosphere, intimate seating, luxe décor and delicious food—indicates the potential of it becoming Boston’s favorite neighborhood restaurant, a place people come to enjoy a wonderful meal, relax and spend time with friends and family. In other words, the ideal place to gather.