Jamie Mammano’s take on classic and contemporary Italian cuisine is neatly tucked away in a narrow stone building in Boston’s Theater District.
MY FRIENDS WERE arguing, as they always do. They engaged in debate over which berry was superior—the blueberry or the raspberry—while I dug, unbiased, into the dessert that lay between the three of us: a vanilla bean panna cotta topped with mint, caramel, blueberries and raspberries. As my friends struggled to convince each other their arguments were better, I considered myself lucky. After all, I had a fresh, sweet, creamy dessert all to myself.
I went in on a warm night, so the characteristic Bostonian wind was refreshing and welcome; and even with a full dining room—ninety-seven patrons, plus a handful of nimble, well-dressed waiters—Teatro’s dining room was, as well. The vaulted ceilings, ambient lighting, and cerulean carpets all contributed to an atmospheric dining experience.
Immediately upon our entrance, Mario Contreras, Teatro’s consistently affable general manager, greeted us. He recommended the octopus and guided us to our table—the last empty table, at that. Not particularly excited to try a food that I, for years, have pointedly avoided, I merely smiled politely and sat down. Mario handed us our menus, bowed, and walked off to tend to the dozens of other patrons.
Now, as far as first impressions, I arrange restaurants into three categories (worst to best): those that don’t serve bread, those that serve bread, and those that serve good bread. Teatro fits into the third category. And while the crushed red pepper and chickpea purée served as a tasty alternative to butter, the antipasto was even tastier. Every aspect of the dish worked well with the bread, but each one was scrupulously prepared to the point that they could all function as delicious little tasting dishes in their own right.
Unsurprisingly, shaved Parmesan and sliced prosciutto were the cornerstones of the dish—but that’s where expectation stopped and exploration began. White bean purée, artichokes with truffled pecorino, eggplant caponata, buffalo mozzarella, roasted turnips, a quaint combination of melon, mint, and honey, and spicy soppressata—one that is actually spicy (I find that so many menus claim “spicy” for dishes that have little to no kick)—round out the plate. I was too captivated by the versatile spectrum of flavors to even speak.
Just as it seemed I’d have a chance to say something—when we finished the food and our plates and silverware were efficiently swapped out—the next dish arrived. “Asparagus?” I asked, shocked that my friend would order something so green. “I don’t do vegetables.” For the most part, that’s true; I only eat vegetables out of necessity, and such necessity has not happened since I was, oh, six. My dinner at Teatro marked the only time that I have ever reached back for seconds on a vegetable dish. The asparagus was light, crisp and most importantly, fresh—as if it went directly from the farmer’s field to the chef’s pan. Sweet honey and a light dusting of the amazing aforementioned truffled pecorino make the asparagus an excellent vegetarian option—one that even meat lovers are sure to enjoy.
If Teatro could make one as carnivorously attuned as myself enjoy vegetables, I could only imagine what they could do with meat. Staying true to the initial air of efficiency, our empty plates were almost instantly swapped out for two full ones—Fig and Prosciutto Sausage, and the manifestation of my apprehension: Octopus. The sausage, made in-house, was charred to perfection, grilled with cipollini onions and shishito peppers, and tossed in a thick and tangy tomato sauce. My only gripe, in all honesty, is that it’s not available as an entrée. As far as the octopus, I can safely say that I had no reason, whatsoever, to be nervous. Sautéed in white beans, soppressata, chili flakes and onions, the dish surpassed every expectation of mine. The flavor was reminiscent of calamari, but lacked any of the chewy, tough-to-eat aspects of squid. All in all, the octopus is a must have for seafood lovers; or any non-vegetarian, really.
The executive chef, Jeff Howe, a well-mannered man with an ostensible love for his craft, came out to personally deliver the entrées: Rigatoni Bolognese, Chicken Milanese, and, for good measure, Scallops with Prosciutto. Most of Teatro’s pasta is made in-house; the only one that isn’t, coincidentally, is the rigatoni. “Dry pasta has its place, too,” Jeff explained with a knowing smile. “Lets the sauce speak for itself.” After the first bite, I learned something: not to question the chef, instead, to just shut-up and eat. The sauce was a quintessential bolognese—veal, beef and pork—but bore three things that set it far, far apart from any others: “love,” “attention to detail” and a dash of nutmeg.
Chicken, in many instances, can often be dry and bland—or the opposite: so tender you worry if it’s cooked to a safe temperature. Teatro’s milanese is neither; it fit right in the middle of the two polarizations. Breaded and panfried—with fresh ground oregano imbued in the breadcrumbs—and topped with arugula, baby tomatoes and shaved Parmesan, the milanese was yet another dish that stayed consistent with Teatro’s level of decadence. It was served with a lemon—make sure to squeeze this over the dish, because while it’s delicious on it’s own, the zest adds flavor to an already flavorful dish.
Scallops rounded out our meal. Even though the dish was relatively small—five scallops, plus a handful of crispy prosciutto slices—it packed an enormous punch. Each scallop was, like the sausage and octopus before it, seared to perfection. Mushrooms and spring onions joined the plate to sit on a bed of cauliflower purée, and after finishing the last bite of this meal, one thing was made abundantly clear: not even the most argumentative of people could debate Teatro’s excellence as a fine dining experience.