Saturday, October 23, 2010

Rino's Place (East Boston)

Friday evening, my friend Paola and I sat contemplating where to go for an early dinner. After throwing several suggestions out, we decided on a family owned Italian restaurant in Eastie. As our combined stomach growlings drowned out our thoughts, I called the restaurant to check their availability. The hostess took my name and told me that our table would be ready in 45 minutes.

We headed over to the restaurant and sat in the car to kill some time. Thirty minutes passed and we decided to check on our table. The cold air stung our eyes as we crossed the street. We went inside and waited for the hostess to notice us.

As we stood there, my eyes wandered around the restaurant. Rino's Place is cozy and intimate, with Italian style frescoes on the walls and ceiling and a large arch in the center. Ten tables are lined around a small, dimly lit room. There are several windows that extend the length of the two walls, which provides a urbanely quaint view of the surrounding neighborhood.

After several minutes, I approached the hostess, and gave her the name under the reservation. She informed us that our table was not ready AND that we were not allowed to wait for it inside the restaurant. Paola and I furrowed our brows, exchanged puzzled glances and said in unison, "Um, ohhkay." Then the hostess actually gave us PERMISSION to wait in OUR OWN car until our table was ready. We turned on our heels and headed back out into the cold night air. As we crossed the street, we heard the hostess yell, in a Jersey-shore type accent, "Bianca! Table's ready!" Again, we turned around and walked back into the restaurant.

We were led to our table in the back corner of the diningroom. Ravenously, Paola and I began to peruse the menu and the specials list. Paola chose the pumpkin ravioli special and I decided on a layered eggplant appetizer with panko bread crumbs, mozzarella cheese and plum tomatoes topped with a cream pesto sauce and my craving du jour...veal parmigiana. We closed our menus and waited for a waitress to take our order.

After a period of time, that seemed intensified by the building nausea, hunger pains and the beginnings of a migraine, our waitress took our order and whisked our menus away. Several minutes later she came back with two waters with lemon (sans straws) and my house salad. The salad was a traditional mix of greens, cherry tomatoes, crisp cucumbers and a red wine vinaigrette. I quickly consumed it, as Paola tried to fill herself up with slices of Italian bread and butter. (Paola commented that serving butter in an Italian restaurant was "very French", and a little olive oil dipper would not be asking too much.) As my still-empty stomach bubbled with vinegar acidity, Paola reached over and dipped her bread into the remains of my salad dressing. As she did, a young, faux-tanned waitress, threw a dirty look in our direction. I, in turn, stared her down as she passed by. Observing this interaction, Paola gagged on her bread and aspirated on the tart vinegar, causing her eyes to water.

An hour passed, as we continued to wait for the appetizer and two straws for our (now room temperature) waters. I dramatically drooped my head into my hands in an effort to not-so-discreetly let everyone know that I was getting impatient. As we sat there, a lanky man with a small child walked in and stood near our table, waiting to pick up a take out order. Still standing within our vicinity, the man began to produce a sound that could only be described as "whooping cough" and did so with very little awareness of proper germ-covering etiquette. And as is often true, the little apple does not fall far from the germy tree. As the child also began to hack, I anxiously prayed that this would not be the time for our MIA food to surface.

Eventually, the layered eggplant appetizer was dropped off at our table. We cut into it and needless to say, it was worth the wait. The panko bread crumbs created a crispy, flaky crust on the eggplant. The plum tomatoes burst sweet juice upon entrance into the mouth. The mozzarella cheese was oozy, hot and stringy and the pesto sauce added a creamy and nutty flavor. Paola and I polished off the deliciousness and pushed the plate to the edge of the table, making it clear that we were ready for more. We watched as the kitchen busted out with containers upon containers and bags of take out orders. There were so many that we lost count, as we looked for our own plates to appear.

An additional 25 minutes passed before our dinners arrived. Paola's pumpkin ravioli was presented to her as "butternut squash ravioli" and was creamy, buttery, slightly sweet with a hint of fresh sage. My veal parmigiana was a like a whole side of delicious baby cow, crusty, cheesy and covered in light homemade tomato sauce. We dove into our entrees and were almost immediately full. Our waitress came to our table, glanced at our plates and said, "You better eat more! You waited long enough for it!" (thanks a lot, lady)

The young waitress who threw us a dirty look earlier, put our food in to-go containers. I had to ask 3 different servers to bring us our bill. When it arrived, I am not ashamed to say, I tipped a mere 11% and got the hell out of there.

I must say, the food was absolutely excellent. It tasted so authentic and homemade, it made me wonder whether Rino's has a little nonna chained to a stove in the back, ferociously concocting Italian dishes for them. The service obviously left much to be desired. It was very obvious that the take out orders take precedence over the customers who are actually sitting there, drooling for food. I would, however, eat there again, but only to take the food to go and eat it in the comfort of my own home.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Lobster Shanty (Salem, MA)

On a cool, crisp, fall evening on October 2nd, we (my boyfriend and I) headed up to Salem, MA to visit an establishment called The Lobster Shanty. We had seen it featured on Food TV's "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives" earlier in the week and were eager to try their Guinness marinated steak tips, the lobster pie and the mac and cheese.

When we arrived, we were greeted by a bouncer who checked our IDs and asked us if we wanted to sit inside or on the patio (please keep in mind that the temperature was in the low 60's and the time, around 8 at night, in October). We opted for indoor seating, where we promptly chose the only available table, tightly abutting a group of obnxious elderly couples. (The reason for their obnoxiousness would become abundantly clear, as my own would be on the rise).

After an inordinate period of time, a waitress brushed by and we indicated that we needed menus. She questioned, "Menus?" Yes, M-E-N-U-S. She dropped them off at the table and took our drink order (a water with lemon for me, The Perfect Storm rum cocktail, for my bf).

As we waited for our drinks, I surveyed the dining area. Small. Dimly lit. Walls covered with nostalgic tin signs. Probably the size of your average bedroom, only with a bar at one end and a large plexiglass live lobster tank at the other. (not too mention a stack of boxes, indicating maybe someone had either just moved in or was planning on moving out).

When our drinks finally arrived (in plastic Solo cups), we also received some bad news simultaneously. Our waitress informed us that they are "all out of the steaks tips" and "there's no more lobster left for the lobster pie." With a confused expression, my glance moved from our waitresses' face, to the tank of one hundred ready and willing crustaceans, back down to the menu. "Those dishes are why we came up here in the first place!" I exclaimed heatedly. Our waitress mumbled "Sorry" and hurried away. Apparently, I scared her. We sat their listening to all the tables around us ordering the Guinness steak tips and being denied (obviously we had all been teased by the same episode of DDD).

We ended up ordering a fried cheese with marina and basil appetizer to start and a cup of (lukewarm) clam chowder. (Just a side note on the use of fresh basil leaves in hot dishes. They are supposed to be added at the last second the avoid any burning or over-wilting, not cooked as long as the main food item. This was not the case here.These basil leaves had seen much better days.) I guess the kitchen managed to wrangle up some lobster (a waitress actually rolled up her sleeves, pulled two out of the tank and carried them dripping and wriggling, over the patrons in the diningroom) because it suddenly became available. I ordered the lobster mac and cheese with a side of sweet potatoe fries and my bf ordered the pulled-pork platter with cole slaw and sweet potato fries. He also received another bowl of the lukewarm clam chowder and was told it was "taken care of" because he hadn't received his original bowl (which he had). Most of the food was mediocre and needed to be heavily salted and peppered. The pulled-pork was cold and the mac and cheese was about as flavorful as Kraft. The sweet potato fries, however, were delicious. Cut like potato chips, soft in the center, crispy on the edges and a perfect combination of sweet and savory. They saved the meal.

I would probably go back again, but ONLY to try those damn steak tips and maybe have another nibble of the sweet potato fries. Also, the Lobster Shantys' location is within walking distance to all the quirky shops in Salem, so that would be the only other reason to ever go near that "dive" again.