White tablecloths, handsome waiters, windows thrown open on a warm spring night— people call to one another in the street two flights down, and I hear the occasional snippet of Italian. The faint aroma of a freshly lit cigar wafts up, mingling with hints of herbs and grilled meat. You could be in any restaurant in Italy.
By Sara Daly — Photographed by Jazz Martin
Or, you could be at Aria Trattoria in Boston’s bustling North End. The tiny restaurant opened in January in the space that previously housed Marco. Since then it’s seen some changes including new floors, windows and a new bar, breathing fresh life into the small trattoria with a prime location overlooking Hanover Street. The new feel strikes a balance between traditional and modern Italian, and the menu reflects a combination of old family recipes and refined plates prepared with a lighter touch.
We began dinner with Aria’s salumi, and with the exception of the prosciutto (which is made in Italy) the charcuterie is made in-house. Accompanied by pungent pecorino, slices of pear, and drizzled with truffle honey, Aria’s salami and bresaola were particularly impressive—delicate, spicy, and thinly sliced. We took turns mopping the last of the truffle honey with bits of fruit and bread, a perfect way to ease into a meal after a hectic day. As the sun dipped behind the building tops, I sipped a glass of Pinot Grigio and perused the menu.
Guests can order a la carte at Aria, but they also have the option to “fare un viaggio,” that is, take a trip. The three-course menu includes appetizers, pasta for the table and an entrée for each person—all selected by the chef. I was curious and asked the owner, Massimo Tiberi, if many people choose this. “Lots of people do,” he told us enthusiastically. “They’re looking for the full experience and this is the way people tend to eat in Italy.”
This is also the way we ordered—entrusting ourselves to the kitchen to send a selection of appetizers, pastas and entrées. While it was more than we could eat, I suggest trying it. I’ve never regretted ordering a chef’s menu in a restaurant, and you typically get to sample a better variety of things.
Tiberi is from Abbruzzo, and the menu features dishes from this part of southern Italy. His wife is from Greece, and you’ll also see Greek influences. Recipes from both mothers are prominent on the menu (the restaurant is named for Tiberi’s daughter, now nearly two years old). Our next two appetizers were gamberi al limone and spiedini al aganello; grilled Lemoncello shrimp and marinated lamb skewers. The shrimp were crunchy, sweet and slightly salty from the pine nuts and capers. The lamb was tender, charred and peppery — medium rare on the inside. Both were cooked perfectly.
The final appetizer was a flatbread pizza. Pizzete con aragosta combines fra diavola, a spicy tomato sauce, with lobster, fontina and banana peppers on a grilled crust that added great crunch to the pizza. A bit of spice throughout the dishes was a noticeable and welcome change from the usual at Aria.
Our spaghetti con vongole, which came next, was outstanding and disappeared fast. Cape Cod clams were served over al dente spaghetti tossed with olive oil, garlic, wine and crushed red pepper. I often find spaghetti in particular is overcooked in restaurants, but here it was just right. We all agreed the vongole was the perfect summer pasta.
Next, the cavatelli con agnello and bucatini all‘amatriciana arrived—which nearly stole the show. Cavatelli is small, oblong pasta, and here the pasta itself is flavored with black pepper and served in a ragu of braised, shredded lamb shank, peas and mint. If you haven’t had bucatini, it’s thick, tubular spaghetti and all‘amatriciana is one of my favorite sauces. It’s so simple, but when done right, the flavor of browned pork (guanciale is traditional) elevates a simple tomato sauce. At Aria, it’s made with house-cured pancetta, caramelized onions and San Marzano tomatoes, and it’s one of those dishes where you’ll want more bread because you can’t stand to leave the sauce. But knowing we still had entrées coming, I restrained myself.
Entrées arrived before I had time to consider how much I had eaten already—again, we were served a sampling from the menu, including porchetta, scallops with white bean ragu and chicken la Greca. The porchetta, a recipe from the owner’s grandmother, is made in the traditional style of Abbruzzo. A rustic dish, it showcases the flavor of various cuts of pork, which are wrapped in pork skin and roasted, keeping the meat very tender.
The capesante con fagoli, plump local sea scallops, were seasoned perfectly and again it’s worth noting that the kitchen handles seafood very well here. The textures and flavors were light, and they were cooked just enough. A bit of crispy prosciutto added a savory, salty note to the dish. The chicken la Greca was simply prepared—marinated then grilled—with the intense flavor of oregano true to its name. It was accompanied by grilled artichokes, which you rarely see on a menu, but they should be served this way more often. The extra effort results in tender yet crunchy artichokes that are a little bit smoky. They’re a wonderful foil to the oregano and lemon in the dish.
Beyond the great food, and options you don’t see on every menu in the North End, the service at Aria stood out. Throughout the night, the wait staff was prompt and courteous. Sharing food as we did can be messy, but even as the restaurant grew busier, tasting plates were cleared and replaced and clean silverware was set down before each course. Wine to pair with dinner was offered before I could ask. This warmth at Aria reflects the deep appreciation for family that inspired the menu—and makes you want to return.