For more than 20 years, Cafe Chianti sat on the corner of Hollis and South, romancing the south end with a delicious European menu and understated elegance. Five months ago, a fire shut down the restaurant, leading to a few furious months of relocation and renovation. Now, Cafe Chianti is open again, in the old Bear Restaurant and its 1241 location, and bringing a taste of Europe back to Barrington Street.
Primed for the luxury of a long lunch, a friend and I arrive promptly at noon, opening the door to a friendly, waiting hostess. She quickly ushers us to a seat at the window. The restaurant is empty save for a couple seated outside enjoying the first sunshine on the patio after what has been a seeming eternity of rain. Soon, another half-dozen tables are full and the dining room is filled with the buzz of happy chatter.
The big dining room is warm with deep purples, wines and yellows. The restaurant is softly bright, but natural light from outside languishes a bit against the heaviness of the gauzy, deep-yellow curtains. There is a charmingly fusty air to the decor. All of the hard, modern edges of Bear have been softened and given a more old-fashioned appeal. The old-world murals by Czech-born artist Dusan Kedlac have been lovingly moved from the old location and restored, giving the new space a familiar feel.
We are only seated a moment before our server arrives with menus and a charming smile. After an introduction and overview of the day's special, he disappears only to return a moment later to take our order and deliver a basket of warm bread.
We start by splitting the jumbo shrimp chianti ($11), which arrives while we are cracking through the deliciously crisp crusts of the warm, fluffy bread. Four fat shrimp, battered and fried to a crispy golden brown, sit in a puddle of sweet, syrupy chili sauce. The shrimp are nicely cooked, tender and not rubbery, and stuffed with a rich, spicy ground pork. They are delicious, though a little heavier than I expected.
For our entrees we choose the butternut squash gnocchi ($13) and one of the restaurant's new gourmet pizzas, the Italiano ($16). The gnocchi is covered in a soft, yellow sauce, thick dusky sunshine in the middle of a sprawling white bowl. The plate looks like a giant egg, sunny side up. A rich mix of earthy potato and sweet butternut squash, the thick dumplings are pillowy and perfect. The intenseness of fontina cheese and warm, peppery sage bring added richness to an all ready heart-stopping mix of butter and cream in the thick sauce. It's delicious, though almost overwhelming.
The pizza is thin, light and crispy, a Neapolitan-style pie easily big enough for two. Rough with cornmeal, the crust has an airy hole structure, slightly charred and blistered around the chewy cornicione. Sharp asiago cheese covers a layer of capicolla, prosciutto and Italian sausage that provides a rich, meaty saltiness, and fresh, diced yellow and red peppers that give a sweet crunch. It's not the best pizza I've had in my life, but it's damn good.
Before we go, we add a sweet finish with the mini zucatto ($9). A thick column of moist cake, it's like a tiny chocolate-coated Amaretto mountain, scaling into a cloud of fresh whipped cream. A scattering of burnished candied almonds provides a wonderfully decadent, sugary crunch.
Cafe Chianti may have changed its address, but the food and service are still exceptional. With 20 years of success to build on and consistency that hints at 20 more to come, hopefully 1241 Barrington has finally found a permanent resident.