On the Menu

A taste of home cooking Italian style
by Anabella Wewer

Java Spots & Coffee Stains

It's always crowded, always very noisy, and the tables are close together. Any time the temperature outside is above freezing, there's a line halfway down the block. If you are anywhere near Boston's North End, make sure you visit La Famiglia.

Well worth the wait, the proximity of the tables, and whatever else you have to go through to get it, the food at La Famiglia is a wonderful mix of fresh ingredients, all cooked to perfection with that home-cooked flavor often found in the heart of Boston's most prominent Italian neighborhood. The atmosphere may not be much, and the open kitchen with the Italian tempers flaring behind the sink doesn't make for quiet conversation, but anyone who's been there knows that you go there for the food, and lots of it. A regular portion is more than enough for dinner and the following day's lunch. It is rare to see someone leaving the place without a doggy bag in their hands. The time-honored Italian tradition of ordering a meat dish with a pasta dish at this congested restaurant is only for those who are determined to share; one person, no matter how much they normally eat, could never finish both. Any pasta dish sports a whole pound of it, and whatever is topping it usually overflows as soon as you put your fork in.

Beware of ordering appetizers; they are wonderful, but the quantities are just as large as the main dishes that come later, and there may be little left of your appetite when the actual meal makes it to your table. The antipasto has a bit more lettuce than desirable, but no matter, for by the time you get there, you'd have had your fill of prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, olives, parmesiano, roasted peppers, and salami.

On the menu is just about every kind of sauce you can think of, and if it isn't there, ask them - they can probably whip it up for you. Their marinara sauce is delightful; light, flavorful, and abundant. Their alfredo sauce is rich, and as good alfredo sauce should be, not diet material. Their pesto sauce is a well balanced mixture of basil and olive oil, and, well, the list goes on. Pretty much every sauce can be served on three choices of pasta - spaghetti, fettuccini and penne - although they do recommend certain sauces with certain types of pasta.

My favorite, however, is not really pasta. La Famiglia's gnocchi, "pasta"-like dumplings made of potatoes, are light and fluffy, and their marinara sauce perfectly complements them. If you can find someone to share it with you, it is a good match to their chicken milanese, a lightly breaded chicken filet served with lemon wedges; the "side" of pasta that comes with it is just tomorrow's lunch.

Mussels, sausage, shrimp, veal, and cheese sauces can be found topping pasta throughout the menu, all well prepared and in enormous quantities. For those conservative types or the smaller set, La Famiglia's menu also offers meatball sandwiches, chicken parmigiana, and spaghetti and meatballs.

I don't seem to remember desserts being on the menu, but then again, the capuccino and cannoli de rigueur always happen after a very long walk around the quaint streets of the North End, if at all. When you finally decide to ask the waitress/waiter to wrap what's left of your food, dessert will be the farthest thing from your mind.

You won't find La Famiglia as you tour the area following The Freedom Trail; it's not on Hanover St., with all the other well-known restaurants, cafes, and bakeries, but on Salem Street, three doors down from the butcher shop and across the street from the only cafe in the North End that isn't packed on Saturday nights. Their prices, especially when you take into account the amount of food served to you, are very reasonable, ranging from $7-10 for most dishes to $15 for the specials.

Their wine menu has been increasing over the years, as has their presence in the city; at last count, there were five La Famiglia restaurants, all run by the Giorgio family, but with the Salem Street one always being the most popular. There is one on Newbury Street, catering more to those seeking a quiet place to dine, but it just isn't the same, and prices are $1-2 higher. There is another one outside of city limits and one on upper Beacon St., and amazingly enough, a smaller one a couple of blocks away from the original on Hanover Street, but these are never as crowded and the food just never tastes quite as good. You can order food for take-out, if they can hear you over the kitchen noise, and obviously it is the same food as you would get if you were eating at the restaurant, but every time I've tried it, it's just been too quiet and not the same. La Famiglia is a wonderful place to take children, though. No one will ever notice their inherent noisiness, and the staff will gladly bring out only half a portion, having already wrapped the other half for you to take home.

La Famiglia is on 112 Salem Street, North End, Boston - (617) 367-6711 - All major credit cards accepted. No reservations.

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