By Bernie Whitmore

290 West Main Street, Northborough
(508) 393-5440

It started as a Monday morning dining rumor, “Hey! You hear anything about a new restaurant across from Romaine’s in Northborough?” Thus began an interest in Limoncello that has been keen and freighted with high expectations. After all, this is a venture by Marc Turo, a member of the family that’s run Leo’s Ristorante since the dawn of time; they’re the bedrock of Worcester dining.

That was before the holidays and, I must admit, my attention became diverted. But when Limoncello’s was mentioned again recently, I quickly agreed to take the drive to Northborough for dinner. Finding it was easy ~ just watch each strip mall for the lemon-yellow sign.

Immediately upon entering Limoncello, my impression was one of high energy. In true bistro form, the dining room is fairly small ~ but packed with tables and parties of diners who, judging by the enthusiastic conversations and laughter, were clearly enjoying themselves. Over this arced a soundtrack of standards from the Sinatra Rat Pack days flecked with contemporary jazz-pop.

Visually, the dining room sets a relaxing backdrop for all this action. The walls are papered Tuscan red and hung with a series of identical wood-framed mirrors spaced equally apart amid cone-shaped art-glass sconces. Soon after being seated we were greeted by Barbara, our server. After presenting a rundown of the day’s specials, she returned with a breadbasket and condiments. We enjoyed slices of rustic Italian bread dabbed in white bean dip or olive oil while choosing our entrees.

I agreed to my friend’s suggestion of starting with an order of Calamari Fritti ~ but not eagerly, thinking to myself, “OK [yawn], what more can I possibly write about this dish?’ My ennui was soon replaced with delight; when the kitchen breads their calamari they also toss a generous handful of tasty olives and red pepper slices into the batter. The result was a pleasing variety of flavors and textures; the heat of the fryer deepens the richness of the olives. A mundane appetizer was transformed into something special.

Limoncello’s entrée menu doesn’t try to be all things to all Italians, but it’s a sturdy framework blending a group of standards with a scattering of innovative and less-frequently encountered meals such as “Uncle Patsy’s Stuffed Calamari” and my friend’s choice, Handmade Veal Braciole.

Some of Italian cuisine’s finest dishes are rooted in peasant cooking, a tradition that derives maximum goodness from humble ingredients. Braciole are one of those special treats, a way to use less-expensive cuts of beef such as flank steak. Thin slices are rolled with a filling of bread crumbs, parsley and grated cheese, then simmered in tomato sauce for hours ‘til they’re tender and all flavors have deeply merged.

By using veal tenderloins, Limoncello has taken something rustic and made it luxurious. Assembled in the traditional manner and simmered in San Marzano sauce, these braciole were light and tender, served in a bowl over ziti. My friend paired it with a glass of ruby-red Tolloy Pinot Noir; the cherry and lightly peppery flavors held their ground with this robust meal.

I chose one of the daily specials, Haddock Bruschetta. A neat idea, they took a large fillet of fresh haddock and smothered it with marinated chopped grape tomatoes layered with slices of fresh mozzarella cheese. It was served with chunks of roasted potatoes, all drizzled with balsamic reduction. The result was a visually appealing and successfully harmonious meal, all of which hinged upon the quality of the haddock ~ which was perfectly fresh and flaked apart.

To cap off these memorable meals, we split an order of Tiramisù. Barbara assured us it was homemade and I believed her. The balance of espresso and cocoa flavors and the smooth, creamy filling were superior to any of the variations I’ve been served in recent months (except, of course, my own).

As we were leaving, I noticed near the doorway the iconic photograph of an Italian market from early twentieth-century Shrewsbury Street. This singularly striking image is a window into an era long past. And it occurred to me that although Bistro Limoncello has successfully attained a level of suburban-cool, they remain rooted in a warm tradition of Italian hospitality: generous service and abundance of flavor. La Dolce Vita arrives in Northborough.