Erbaluce’s Chef Draghi: A Master at the Complex Art of Simple Ingredients
When someone says “no cream or butter please,” you usually roll your eyes. How is anything supposed to be any good without cream or butter?!
Calm down. Chef Charles Draghi has it covered. Tucked into Boston’s tiny Bay Village, his Italian trattoria Erbaluce does just that. He’s known to focus flavors of fresh herbs, fruit and vegetable essences, and natural roasting juices. He exchanges thick butter or cream dishes for lighter (yet still bold) natural flavors, building sauces from pureeing vegetables and their essences. What? Genius. Perhaps this is why they have a “trophy” section in the corner with framed awards from the Best Italian Restaurant by the Improper Bostonian and Boston Globe.
With all the buzz Erbaluce is generating outside its walls, there’s also a lot of buzz inside. Happy conversation, the cappuccino machine’s whirl, fork-to-plate clinking, this is a bustling place. The rustic brown floor, the tiny red lights around the windows, white tablecloths add to the cozy feel.
Within moments of sitting down in the candlelit second floor, we overheard someone ask how to pronounce the restaurant’s name. I’m so glad. I didn’t want to be the one to ask. It’s “er ba loo chey”. You’re welcome.
Dishes are intriguing in their purity. Very few ingredients somehow translate to tons of flavor. One of the night’s specials was the perfect example–wild boar brushed with black olive puree and served with a paste of fermented concord grapes and lavender branches. Our server explained that the chef believes 50 percent of the flavor is given to us by the ingredient itself. Why mess with it? Just to remind you that Chef Mother Nature wins, there are potted lavender plants on each table.
We warmed ourselves up with a Vellutata of Roasted Pumpkin to start. Again, kudos for using veggie puree instead of cream to give the soup body. Lobster chunks were happily bobbing, and the simple red pepper and tarragon made for a cozy trip down my throat. We also chose a simple starter of San Daniele prosciutto with local apples, sesame and mint. Every flavor was fresh.
My entree was Sauteed Skate Wing with a Venetian-style sweet onion sauce and pine nuts over a bed of lima beans and greens. This gentle crusted fish was a nice contrast to the slightly vinegary slaw-like onions. I was told to “comb” the meat off the wing, a process which left a Jurassic Park-like lattice of bone when I was done. The portion was giant, but somehow I had no leftovers.
Next was succulent red wine-braised Pork Cheeks with pumpkin mustard. There was a tenderness that required no cutlery, and the three large cheeks were placed aside a sugar ‘n’ spicy pumpkin concoction, fingerling potatoes and greens.
The favorite – Roasted Potato Gnocchi with a Friulian style-boar goulash. The intense, welcoming aroma overwhelmed its counterparts the moment it was placed on the table. Sorry, skate and pork cheeks. It was rich, almost cinnamon-y tomato. Something I would have experienced walking into my nona’s kitchen. The gnocchi were pillowy and rich; the boar maintained its game flavor nicely. It was the definition of hearty and warm.
Despite full bellies, we were on to dessert. The Goat Cheesecake didn’t work, with a chalky taste and overwhelming bite to the green tomato marmalade. But the dessert du jour came to the rescue–a semifreddo of Maraschino cherries nestled between two chocolate cakes drizzled with chocolate Grenache and a thick cherry compote, topped with salted caramel.
With all these fresh flavors, one might ask – when you have Erbaluce, who needs butter and cream?