As the city of Boston becomes more and more of a world-class destination spot when it comes to food, it seems that so many of the new restaurants opening up focus on upscale this and inventive that, which is all well and good, but for some people (or more than some), it's all about simplicity--be it familiar dishes, servers who have been at a place forever, or atmosphere that won't win any design awards but feels like home. This tends to be especially true when it comes to Italian restaurants, as there really is nothing like a big plate of pasta served by a person calling you "honey" while lounge music (or no music) plays in the background. Boston's North End still has some places like this, including a local favorite called Al Dente that has been around a long time and remains a low-key place that, sure, tourists and businesspeople may find along the way, but which tends to be more of the type of restaurant that you go to for a leisurely meal on a Saturday night with friends and family.
The North End has a mix of large and small restaurants, but once you get off Hanover Street (which tends to be considered the main drag), you'll find more in the way of cozy, intimate spots than multi-room eateries. The cramped and narrow Salem Street--which parallels Hanover Street--is full of such places, including Al Dente, which looks about as plain and simple as you can get. The interior of the restaurant consists of one room, with three rows of tables that extend from the front window area to the back where the kitchen is, and the tables can easily be moved around for bigger groups while the front tables by the windows are probably the most coveted, as you can get to do some always-fascinating people watching along Salem Street, including seeing everyone from older Italian families to young professionals who have moved into the North End to construction workers, college students, and tourists who might have hopped off the Freedom Trail, which is only a block away.
As is the case with some of the old-fashioned Italian-American restaurants in the North End, don't come here expecting to find modern takes on Italian food or cocktails that have cute (and/or weird) names; instead, you'll be able to choose from a number of excellent versions of well-established pasta, meat, and seafood options that generally come in large portions at reasonable prices. The regular menu includes some great takes on such classics as eggplant rollatini, minestrone soup, Caesar salad, a moderately garlicky broccoli rabe, an Italian sausage in red sauce, pasta with options such as pesto, alfredo, pomodoro, primavera, carbonara, puttanesca, and bolognese, and the usual chicken/veal parm, chicken/veal marsala, chicken cacciatore, linguine with clams, and shrimp scampi. In some ways, Al Dente's everyday specialty items--and daily specials--are where the place really shines, with the former including a perfectly-layered eggplant parm and a seafood risotto that comes with aromatic saffron rice, and the latter (depending on the day, of course) possibly including a substantial and very cheesy lasagna and a hearty beef cannelloni. Drinks are similarly basic in a retro sort of way at Al Dente, with a few options for beer, a decent number of options for red and white wines, and being that it is an Italian-American restaurant, cordials such as campari, amaretto, and limoncello.
Some people brush off the North End where it comes to dining out, saying that it's nothing more than a tourist trap, and while visitors to Boston do tend to gravitate to this historic neighborhood, it's not all about generic restaurants that cater mainly to outsiders. The truth is, the North End has a mix of touristy dining spots, upscale eateries, and yes, old-school Italian-American restaurants such as Al Dente which seem to be getting more and more difficult to find with each passing year. If you like simple Italian meals served in an atmosphere that feels like that of yesteryear, this is certainly one of your better options in or near the heart of Boston.
Copyright © 2019, 2020, Boston's Hidden Restaurants (www.hiddenboston.com).
Please help keep Boston's Hidden Restaurants and Boston Restaurant Talk going by making a one-time contribution or via a monthly subscription. Thanks! (Donations are non-deductible.)