Tuesday, June 7, 2011
Rino's Place, Boston MA
For my very last 3/4 day in Boston my agenda finally had nothing to do with the conference but rather with seeing the New England Aquarium – the last remaining “Top 10” aquarium left on my United States list – and visiting some of Boston’s more touristy, famous, and well-known spots. With an early run and morning visit to Mike’s Pastry already completed by 6am and 8am respectively my arrival at the Aquarium would precede the opening of the doors and with small children and tour busses arriving only after I’d been there for more than two hours (seriously, the little blue penguin exhibit and central tank alone justify the cost of admission) the visit was one of the best in recent memory…and at this point the day had only just begun.
With logistics conveniently planned and with Droid-based Googlemaps in hand a quick walk from the aquarium to the Blue Line toward Wonderland would lead me to East Boston, a place some had told me to avoid, but a place that nonetheless contained a restaurant I didn’t feel I could afford to miss – a restaurant featuring Zagat food ratings on par with O-Ya at a bill less than 1/8 the price and a restaurant that was often known to sport 2+ hour lines at dinner despite its location – Rino’s Place.
With the Blue Line surprisingly efficient compared to the Green or the Silver and maps thankfully accurate my departure from the aquarium at 10:30 and a quick walk would have me at the doors of the 25 year old family owned red sauce joint just moments after the doors opened and aside from a small sign outdoors and a large poster of Guy Fieri within the “Place” was about as unassuming as it gets. Watching Food Network and similar programs rarely (if ever) and having never seen Fieri’s show that made Rino’s the phenom it has become I surprisingly entered the small ~50 seat space with only one other couple already present and after being encouraged to sit wherever I like I was presented with the menu, wine list, and a glass of water by my server – a tall bald fellow who knew everyone (and was likewise known by everyone) who entered the restaurant that afternoon except for myself.
Asked if this was my first visit I affirmed the suspicions to which I was bid “Welcome – the specials menu is gonna take a bit, but if you need anything just give me a holler – bread will be up in a minute” and with that I sat and relaxed at my white tableclothed table sipping my water and listening to the kitchen while the specials menu was hand-written in great detail. With windows to my left and a large mural to my right it would be a good twenty minutes before the menu was completed and in the interim I placed an order for an appetizer while the restaurant slowly filled to capacity.
With tip-top service throughout the afternoon and water that never reached less than half empty the specials menu took a bit of time to navigate but once my full order was placed it would be mere seconds before the meal would begin – first with a simple house salad topped with zippy house made Italian vinaigrette (the alternative option being an enormous helping of rigatoni with red sauce that could have easily served two, as was ordered by my neighbors who opted against waiting on the specials menu and had their full meal in front of them before the hand written menu was complete.)
With the salad relatively straight forward and now knowing the rumor of Rino’s portion sizes to be true I slowly ate some greens while reading The Globe’s sports page when a warm basket of sliced house made Italian Bread arrived along with packets of butter. Asked if I’d like “some gravy for dipping” I declined (once again, worried about portion sizes as I’d ordered three different dishes) and with a pat of Land O’ Lakes Whipped Butter as the alternative condiment I will note that although slightly sweet with an ample crunch this is the sort of bread that is made for dipping – not that it was bad, but more that it was a sort of dense carbohydrate sponge that would prove useful as subsequent plates arrived.
Ordering half portions in order to maximize tasting while saving stomach capacity, my first dish to arrive would be a $6 plate of gnocchi described as “homemade potato dumplings sauteed in a fresh plum tomato sauce and topped with fresh mozzarella and baked.” With the dumplings clearly handmade and so light they seemed ready to float off the plate and the blend of slightly sweet yet subtly spiced tomato sauce and creamy cheese providing just the right amount of flavor this “half” portion was easily two-fold the size of an average plate of restaurant gnocchi and served piping hot without suffering from the sogginess that maligns lesser preparations it was substantially better than most, as well.
With the gnocchi plate mopped clean with a slice of bread my next course would arrive with bread of its own and a flavor profile somewhat similar to the gnocchi, but a lot more spice. Titled simply “Tripe” and described minimally as slowly simmered in Fresh Plum Tomato Sauce served with Toast Points I was told that this was one of the “chef’s favorites” and at $6.50 for what was easily half a stomach it again proved vastly better than its price would dictate. Savory, light, rustic, and flecked with spicy notes of black pepper plus pecorino, garlic, and notes of cumin and paprika this was tripe done right and thankfully light despite the significant portion size.
Realizing at this point that three half-portions was enough that dessert probably was not in the cards and unable to resist wiping up the tripe sauce with the crunchy garlic bread my final course arrived steaming hot from the salamander oven and as good as the first two courses was it proved to be the best of the night – and amongst the best rustic Italian dishes my Midwestern palate has ever encountered. Described simply as “Layered Eggplant” and ordered largely on the word of my server who called it his favorite “non-meat” dish on the menu this half-eggplant arrived in three thick rounds pan seared to a supple consistency supported by a fried panko crust and sandwiched around whole roasted tomatoes, layers of fresh mozzarella “from a store just down the street,” and topped with a thick garlicky basil pesto sauce. To say the least it was delicious, to say more would just be hyperbole – if it is on the menu it is a MUST order and at $6 I have no idea how they’re making money on this dish.
Nearly bursting at the mere suggestion of dessert (especially with an early dinner planned before hopping on a plane back to Ohio) my server asked me if there was anything else I’d like and with the restaurant now full with a couple of parties waiting I thanked him and said no, just the check. Full and happy the bill did not hurt my mood with a total of $24 after a nearly 25% tip and thanked as though he didn’t expect such generosity I made my way to the street and back to the Blue line where I managed to avoid falling asleep en route back to Boston knowing that a walk around the Freedom Trail remained on my agenda. Thankful for the weather and even moreso that I’d made the decision to travel over to East Boston for lunch I can wholeheartedly recommend Rino’s Place and given the quality to price ratio I can even say that it might be worth the hour-long waits.