by Megan Maisano
It’s the end of the semester. Motivation for cooking and weekly meal prep is low. Are you yearning for some Italian comfort fare, but don’t want to make the trek to North End? Fear not. This hidden gem will fill your heart and your belly.
As soon as I walked into the restaurant, I felt at home and part of la famiglia. Packed in tightly among 12 tables were families and friends, hunched over their meals in conversation, accompanied by glasses of wine and fresh bruschetta. The small room was filled with stories, laughter, and the smell of warm tomato sauce. I turned to my husband, Andrew, and got a nod of approval. It was our first time at Carlo’s Cucina in Allston.
Snuggled between a Vietnamese and Chinese restaurant on Brighton Ave, Carlo’s Cucina (pronounced coo-CHEE-nah) was nearly full on a Tuesday night. We snagged a table next to the kitchen in the back, with optimal views of the place in action. Paintings of the Italian countryside covered the walls and wisps of white painted clouds dotted the blue ceiling. Servers scooted between tables, waiting their turn to walk through the narrow passes, cracking jokes in Italian with regulars along the way.
The restaurant itself offers a no-frills dining experience. The table is set with paper placemats and napkins, and not much space for elbow room. While the ambience at Carlo’s Cucina may not compare to the gusto of dining in Boston’s North End Italian restaurants, the food will keep us coming back.
As someone who married into an Italian family and once took a cooking class in Tuscany, I like to believe I have developed a taste for authentic Italian food. But just to be sure my taste was true, I invited Andrew along for a second opinion. And let me tell you, we experienced some anguish when deciding what to order – we wanted to try it all! In addition to the usual spread of antipasti (appetizers), primi (pasta dishes) and secondi piatti (protein dishes), there was also a Specialità della Casa section.
While we examined the menu, our server brought us complimentary toasted bread, pimento stuffed olives, and olive oil. We did our best not to overindulge before our meal, but it was hard to pass up the aroma of freshly baked bread and olive oil.
For our antipasti, we ordered the fried eggplant, Melanzane Ripiene ($10). Laid over a large plate was eight inches of crisp eggplant rolled up with ricotta that oozed out of its sides, and topped with marinara sauce and broiled mozzarella that stuck to our forks. It was heavenly. In a rare act of self-control, we asked for a box to save half of this God-sent dish for later.
We decided to skip the primi piatti: with their generous portion sizes, I can’t imagine ordering more than one course here again. For the secondi piatti, we ordered off the specialty menu. I chose the Pollo Gerardo ($20), a chicken Marsala dish with tomatoes, peppers, and olives. Andrew chose the Vitello Carlo ($23), a popular Yelp pick of veal stuffed with artichokes, prosciutto and Fontina cheese, and topped with tomato sauce, mushrooms and sautéed onions.
I’m a sucker for a good Marsala sauce, so the Pollo Gerardo hit the spot. The dish had an appropriately oversized piece of chicken, lightly battered and pounded thin. The Marsala sauce was reduced to a thick texture and while it tasted just fine with the toppings, I missed the earthy sautéed mushrooms that traditionally accompanied it. Perhaps next time I’ll stick with the traditional Pollo Marsala dish ($20). Andrew picked the Vitello Carlo because of his love for artichokes. This dish had a lot going on, in a good way. The combination of flavors from the tender veal, plum tomato sauce, artichokes, and creamy Fontina kept us picking at it long after we had our fill. And while we planned to get desert, our stomachs begged for mercy. Next time, Cannoli… Next time.
By the end of the night, we had sung happy birthday twice to strangers, clapped, and raised our glasses to their fortune. It felt like we were a part of a large family gathering, spread across tables in a dining room, enjoying home-style comfort foods from our very own kitchen.
If you’re looking for authentic Italian dishes without making the arduous trip to the North End, Carlo’s Cucina is your spot. Make reservations, come hungry, and leave a part of la famiglia.
Carlo’s Cucina Italiana
131 Brighton Ave., Allston, 617.254.9759, http://carloscucinaitaliana.com/
Megan Maisano is a second-year Nutrition Communications student, an RD-to-be, and is generally disappointed by small portion sizes. After traveling and eating her way through 24 countries, Italian cuisine remains her personal favorite.