Sunday, July 14, 2024

Pasta at Trattoria Pulcinella in Cambridge. (Photo: Bea T. via Yelp)

Fine Italian and upscale pizza are all the rage, and often in the same nook (Source and Gufo, to name two). But you can find old-school Italian comfort this side of the river too, in the long-established Gran Gusto and Trattoria Pulcinella. We’ve extolled the virtues of Gran Gusto (big fan of the O’Re truffle pizza), so we now shine the light on Pulcinella, ensconced in its intimate digs for some 30 years and serving to cafe-style tables with white tablecloths. Most every night you’ll have owner Maria Oliva there to greet you and stop by your table for a friendly chat. She opened the restaurant with her late husband Gian, originally from Naples. Maria’s got bona fide Italian roots too: She grew up in Boston’s North End. Pulcinella remains family-run, and if you have any leftover Gnocchi con Gamberi al Pesto (potato dumplings and shrimp), daughter Amanda will give you the strictest of reheating instructions – don’t microwave, only a stovetop saucepan, and with a touch of olive oil and water.

A resonating wonderment of Pulcinella is its wood-latticed ceiling, It has the hand-hewn craftsmanship of an old Tuscan villa that you might encounter after a scenic cruise to Italy. It’s casual, yet formal, traditional yet different. Get a bottle of crisp white Italian and relax. The menu, which changes from time to time, isn’t vast, but it holds the basic homey Italian basics: chicken Parm, lobster fra diavolo and veal scallopini. The superstars of the appetizer slate are the calamari with  lemon zest aioli and octopus puttanesca, tender octopi with the tangy accent of olives, tomatoes and garlic. Me, I went in for the scialatielli con frutti di mare, thick, al dente spaghetti with a bounty of fresh clams, mussels and shrimp. You can get it with a white garlic wine or spicy red sauce. I went with the latter, which wasn’t too spicy and wasn’t a marinara, but something more akin to what you’d get with a fra diavolo or cioppino. I love the notion of white garlic wine, but now can’t imagine the dish any other way. And when you get down to it, you’ll want to put that spoon to good use and save some of your bread for the sop up. 

As for the name, Pulcinella is a raffish character from 17th century commedia dell’arte, one of those middle-ages puppet shows designed to entertain the masses. For a quick trip from your everyday without getting in an Uber, Pulcinella is charming changeup and a fine fill-up too.

Trattoria Pulcinella, 147 Huron Ave., Observatory Hill, 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.