Saturday, July 20, 2024

Head-on shrimp at Gufo in East Cambridge. (Photo: Tom Meek)

It’s sad that Loyal Nine, nestled on Cambridge Street train tracks as Wellington-Harrington edges into East Cambridge, shuttered last year, costing us an eclectic eatery that was both cafe and destination diner spot. But something new always rises, and in its stead, the Coda restaurant group has launched Gufo. The modern twist on fine Italian – with Giulia, Bar Enza and Josephine, something that seems to be trending – is evolving as renovations are completed and menus built out. 

Coda, which also owns SRV and Salty Pig in Boston, wants to return to that daytime-cafe-and-dinner format, I’m told, but for now the feasting is from 5 p.m. onward. The layout and style is similar to Loyal Nine’s spare, minimalist vibe with more spit and shine. During my last visit, remodeling was underway on a roofed, outside dining pavilion next to the train tracks that is expected to hold an additional 40 to 50 seats. Inside is a small cafe space that for now is the host station; an ample dining room; and a horseshoe-shaped bar by a semi-open kitchen.

So what to eat? There’s pizza, pasta, one or two big plates (roasted black bass and a half-chicken) as well as small plates and snacks, which have some grand ingenuity to them – simple concepts you really don’t find elsewhere. The wood-fired pies cover the basics of Margherita, sausage, mushroom, pepperoni and sausage, but most have little twists: The pepperoni comes with a vodka sauce, and the white zucchini ’za comes with anchovy. Like Giulia, the pasta dishes are secondi in size, meaning you could have a small plate or two and a pasta. The one to get is the squid ink bucatini with baby clams, ’nduja butter (a spreadable, spicy salami paste) and just a touch of lemon and parsley. The dish is a delicious symphony, with bucatini that’s succulent and pliable but not overcooked. When my order came and there were only four popped-open clamshells atop the crest of black pasta, I thought I had been ripped off, but in that mound of yummy black squiggles there were plenty more tender baby clams out of the shell.

Gufo replaces Loyal Nine in East Cambridge. (Photo: Tom Meek)

Onto those shareables. When you sit down at Gufo (the name mean “owl” in Italian) you are served homemade focaccia, but no olive oil or butter. The focaccia is delish just as is, moist and oily with just a trace of rosemary, but don’t eat it: Save it for your shareables (and then get more). The focaccia is the conduit for nearly half the small plates including the La Tur, a creamy Italian goat cheese that comes with a drizzle of honey; spread it on a focaccia slice for a happy beginning. There there’s the eggplant caponata (an Italian sailor’s olio of red wine vinegar, olives and roasted veggies) with whipped ricotta, and head-on jumbo shrimp in a sauce of Fresno (chili pepper) and garlic butter. The shrimp are big and bit of a mess to get out of the shell, but well worth it, and after you’ve wiped your fingers clean you’ve got that focaccia on hand to sop up that delectable butter sauce. If you’re an arancini fan, the cacio e pepe version here with a fontina fonduta is dutifully crisp on the outside but a moist, cheesy explosion in your mouth.

The current cocktail menu has a summer accent to it, with an assortment of spritzers, the frothy, eye-appealing Shaken No. One (Citadelle gin, strawberry rhubarb syrup and lemon) and my favorite, the Molinari (Chamomile vodka, Contratto Bianco and grapefruit juice), essentially a Greyhound with refreshing flourish. It’ll be interesting to see how the cafe concept builds out, but as of now Gufo is a good place for the culinarily curious to come for something new and different. 

Your bill comes inside a little notebook with notes and messages from previous dinners – think of inn guestbooks with some of that Fresno garlic butter sauce on a few of the pages.

Gufo (660 Cambridge St., East Cambridge)

Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in the WBUR ARTery, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, The Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere.