When people new to the Worcester area get around to asking where they can enjoy a good Italian meal, you just point them to Shrewsbury Street, right? Well that’s what I would have done until last week, before I joined a friend for dinner at 257 Park Ave., a location I’d given up on years ago.
But after two courses at The Park Grill, my reply to that question now will probably be something more like, “East Side or West?”’ Get ready, Worcester, there’s a new force to be reckoned with ~ someone with bold flavors, hearty portions and honest quality. And he’s not situated “On the Street”
I’m referring to The Park Grill, whose new owner, Dino Singas, took some time to stop by our table, introduce himself and discuss how he intends to put his restaurant back on Worcester’s map. He wasn’t surprised when I cited “uneven” dining experiences in recent years at 257 Park Ave., and he acknowledged that prior ownership had let the place slide. This just makes his challenge a more daunting one.
With an air of modest confidence, Dino explained that his plan of success is this simple: With a stack of great recipes and an excellent chef, The Park Grill is going to win our loyalty back, one plate at a time.
After being seated and scouting the menu, we decided to share the Sautéed Mussels appetizer, choosing the white wine broth option. Our server presented them in classic style, covered by another dish in order to retain all the rich steam.
From the first bite, there was no doubt: They were exceptional. Perfectly clean and medium-sized, the meat was plump and tender. But the broth … it was excellent! Garlicky, creamy white with Parmesan cheese, it was piping hot and richly flavored by the mussels’ natural liquor.
No soup spoons? No problem, we had plenty of empty shells that we could employ as perfect ladles. We scooped up every drop.
I enjoyed them with a glass of Wormtown Winter Ale. Its rich bitter taste and deep amber color was ample proof that Wormtown just keeps getting better. Its chilled heartiness was perfect on this frosty winter evening.
Crunchy salads followed, an ideal transition to the entree course. They came with tasty balsamic vinaigrette and contained mixed greens and fleshy cucumber chunks. Large rings of red onion passed my freshness test: They were still crunchy and sweet.
We parted menu ways for our entrees: My friend ordered from the grill. His Park Grill Sirloin Tips came served with rice pilaf and grilled vegetables. And he was soon raving, “Rich, juicy-pink on the inside, char-grilled on the outside in a rich olive oil-balsamic glaze. Tons of them!” And, alas, it was true: The Park Grill’s portions are as generous in size as they are in flavor.
I shopped from the Pasta Dishes section and chose a favorite, Eggplant Rollatini. Everyone seems to have their own recipe. In the past, I’ve written about some I found ethereal. The Park Grill’s are firmly grounded in the canon of Italian flavors. The order of two was topped with mozzarella cheese and baked ‘til molten. The order came with perfectly al dente ziti dressed in fresh marinara ~ a success in its own right.
The rollatini were packed with a creamy-thick mixture of four cheeses. Ricotta provided the framework, and mozzarella lent stretchy strings of drama. But the flavor also came from bits of garlic ~ real, honest garlic, not powder. It lent texture and a pallet-waking taste. It was so delicious, I wanted to devour the entire order. But the rollatini were so huge, half the order was packed to take home.
It’s going to require several additional visits to The Park Grill in order to fully explore its menu; this is research I eagerly anticipate. But from a preliminary visit, I can report that classic Italian has returned to Worcester’s West Side.
The Park Grill & Spirits
257 Park Ave., Worcester