By Bernie Whitmore
192 Harding Street, Worcester
Why is Italian cuisine so popular? One reason, I suppose, is that it’s based upon easily available “big flavor” ingredients that just about anybody can put together in a hurry to make a satisfying meal. Most of us can even grow what’s needed in the back yard.
These peasant roots (in the best sense of the words) have been handed down and refined through the ages. The better chefs can take those humble ingredients and produce dishes of poetic elegance. This seemed true with every meal I ordered in Rome last fall ~ and again last week at Ziti’s Italian Trattoria.
Our appetizer, Eggplant Rollatini, was straight from that tradition. Thin slices of eggplant were breaded, fried and rolled around incredibly fluffy ricotta cheese and baked in fresh marinara. It looks simple, but most kitchens just cannot achieve such flavorful results that verge on the ethereal. When I complemented Stella Rando, one of Ziti’s owners, she reacted with a nod a mother might reserve for her favorite child. Then she acknowledged her chef.
That proved they understood simple elegance, but this is a kitchen that’s also mastered dishes more sophisticated. On a previous visit I had ordered their Porcini Ravioli, expecting ravioli dressed with slices of mushroom. But this plate came with such a rich, sophisticated sauce I was left begging for a soup spoon. The chef had captured and concentrated the essence or porcini in an amazing way.
In their first months of operation, Ziti’s was bring-your-own-bottle. Now they proudly display their wine selection along the dining room side of the bar. I chose a glass of Dragani Montepulciano D’Abruzzo, ruby-red spicy and rich. It would be an ideal match with tonight’s entrée. Nick, our waiter, brought fresh-baked bread with butter and a cup of tasty marinara for dipping. He also had a long list of specials to recite.
We continued our meal with a Caesar salad ~ sliced romaine leaves with a dressing that balanced garlicky bite with lemon and plenty of cheesy bits. There was more than enough for sharing and its dressing came “on the side” in a lidded plastic cup.
With a craving for Veal Parmesan, Ziti’s was just the place for my friend that evening. They serve up slices as large as an outstretched (adult) hand, drenched in marinara and cloaked in molten parmesan cheese. It came with a side of ziti. With way too much to finish, he took much of the veal home with him. Another craving indulged.
I chose my entrée, Mussels over Linguini, after seeing it served to another table. A big round bowl was painstakingly wreathed with medium-sized mussels that surrounded piping hot linguine tossed in broth from the mussels and tinted red with tomato. I don’t know how they perfectly lined up all those shellfish fast enough to get the dish out in the same night but that didn’t stop me from dismantling it. Nick gave me an empty bowl for the shells and I soon started filling it as I forked out the tasty meat from their shells. I gave the pasta a few shakes of red pepper and had a treat any seafood lover would savor.
I don’t often order dessert, but when Nick returned with the presentation tray and pointed out each selection trucked in from Modern Pastry of Boston’s North End, well, who could resist? An extra assistant was required to display the “lobster tail” ~ an enormous pastry shell stuffed with sweetened cheese ~ perfect for a table of six or eight adults. We chose a slice of Limoncello Cake, moistened by layers of lemon custard and sealed in thick lemon cream; it was sweet but not cloying, a refreshing finish to a rich meal.
It was just this past January that Ziti’s opened the Harding Street location ~ but they’re certainly not newcomers to the restaurant business. Before the flowering of Worcester’s own dining scene, I used to join friends for dinner at their Westborough location. Their move into town has set the bar of dining quality a few notches higher.