5 Things to Eat at Benedetto in Cambridge

Harvard Square's hot new Italian in a storied space
December 6, 2016
by Scott Kearnan

Checking in at the Charles Hotel, Benedetto showcases the Italian cooking of Michael Pagliarini, the chef behind Cambridge's intimate and acclaimed Giulia. The restaurant (whose name means "blessed" in Italian) moves into the locale that previously belonged to Rialto, Jody Adams' fine-dining institution that closed in June after more than 20 years. Pagliarini said it was an "irresistible opportunity to take over such an iconic space" — and he even grabbed coffee with Adams to learn more about her experiences there. But the chef says Benedetto is all about "looking forward, not back." The 220-seat setting boasts a "farmhouse-chic" new design inspired by rural Umbria and Tuscany, with lots of brick, terra cotta and copper accents and walnut hardwood floors. There's also a patio and a 15-foot white oak "pasta table," similar to one at Giulia, where pasta is handmade during the day and meals for big parties are served at night. 

Courtesy of Erik Jacobs/Benedetto

​​Meanwhile the regional Italian menu "expands on" what Pagliarini has been doing at Giulia. "There's something about Italian cooking that really speaks to me," he says. "It's seasonal and humble, born in the cucina povera [or 'kitchen of the poor'] and interwoven with art, music and culture. There's such history and diversity in the cooking of the Italian peninsula from north to south. It's a well of inspiration that runs very deep." 

Here are a few dishes that show what this Harvard Square newcomer is all about. (And why your food Instas might finally be truly #Blessed.)

1 Bennett St., Cambridge; 617-661-5050

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Sopressata and white bean bruschetta. In preparing to open Benedetto, Pagliarini found ideas from recent travels through Rome and Venice, as well as leafing through favorite cookbooks. "It was really exciting to feel that spark of discovery again," he says. Among the results is a spread of sfizi like this sopressata and white bean bruschetta with rapini, pecorino, grilled red onion and fennel pollen. It's inspired by a recipe from chef Paul Bertolli's cookbook Cooking By Hand. "I always have that book within reach," Pagliarini adds. The sopressata actually comes from Bertolli's specialty food biz Fra Mani Handcrafted Salumi.

Crispy yellow dent corn polenta. Other combinations come from closer to home. Pagliarini says that his polenta, served with baccalà mantecato (whipped salt cod with chive and caviar), is "a dish that harks back to my first restaurant job in Boston, working with Gordon Hamersley" at the chef's Hamersley's Bistro. "I'm sort of stealing this one from Gordon," he says with a chuckle. "But it was 16 years ago! I don't think he minds." 

Spicy grilled octopus. This antipasti is "a crazy idea I've had for a while," says Pagliarini, who wanted to pull together some serious "oceanic flavors." To that end, he's created some tasty "sapori di mare maionese" (literally "flavors of the sea" mayo) that uses pressed fish roe that's salted and cured; run-off from salted anchovies ("a prized ingredient akin to a fish sauce," he says); and dried seaweed from Veta La Palma, a sustainable fish farm in southern Spain. Add to charred octopus, boiled potatoes and fennel, and you have a vibrant plate. "It sounds complex, but it's just about achieving a rich, powerful ocean flavor." 

Tagliatelle alla Bolognese. It's an Italian restaurant staple, but Pagliarini was determined to do this dish justice. "Does the world really need another tagliatelle alla Bolognese? Absolutely, 100% yes," he affirms. "What we don't need is another version that is diluted; just tomato sauce with burger." Pagliarini says he compared the best elements of different recipes before settling on his own approach, which involves a traditional ragu with beef short rib, pancetta and chicken livers.

Dark chocolate budino. When you're ready to enjoy a sweet finish, know you're in excellent hands. Benedetto is the new home to Renae Connolly, one of our picks for pastry chefs you need to know. She's moved here from Cafe ArtScience in Kendall Square, where she did impressive, innovative work. Expect more of that here, including a sumptuous chocolate budino with honey crunch, brûléed quince, ras el hanout (for a little spice) and caramel gelato.

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