Grotto, a tiny Italian restaurant hidden in Beacon Hill, exudes romance in the food, in the décor and in the experience. Something about finding this gem’s tiny grey sign under crumbling brick buildings adds a level of discovery and adventure to the average date night, and that’s just from the outside.
After descending a small staircase, Grotto’s true European allure emerges with red curtains hanging from the corners, straight from a Baroque-period painting. Fading portraits hang on the walls in rich gold frames, illuminated by flickering candles and chandeliers. Exposed brick hides behind aging bottles of wine, arranged not to be tasted but to be admired.
There is something cliché about a small, dimly lit Italian restaurant with romantic charm, yet Grotto’s ambiance never feels tired or forced. Nonetheless, the menu does revisit the same “non-traditional Italian” hits, like arugula salad, pasta with butter-poached lobster and molten chocolate cake.
From the appetizer menu, the calamari with white bean, arugula, peppers and lemon was simple but elegant, with the char on the calamari adding a smoldering contrast to the acidity of the lemon. The almost-puttenesca sauce served with the butter-poached lobster offered as an entrée had a simple, classic taste. That being said, the lobster itself was tender and succulent. For the dessert, the molten-chocolate cake in general is always a crowd-pleaser, and the cake at Grotto is no exception, although, it could have been more creative.
On Grotto’s starter menu, the garlic soup, enhanced with black truffle and Parmesan, stood out. So often, truffle leaves the realm of luxurious and enters the world of nauseating. Fortunately, the garlic soup at Grotto taught me to forgive and forget the past wrongs the mushroom has inflicted on poor, innocent dishes. Garlic soup might sound dangerous, but Grotto has incomprehensibly combined the most overpowering ingredients in a manner that the combination of garlic and truffle oil does not clash. The two complement one another, creating a soup that tastes wild, foreign and new.
Also from the appetizer menu, the fondue is a bit classier than the usual bread and cheese combo. Instead, it is served with juicy tri-tip and Portobello mushrooms, aged balsamic and, you guessed it, truffle oil.
The dinner menu has some playful surprises in the midst as well, especially in the entrée selection. The “ravioli” with morels, leeks, arugula and diver scallops are particularly noteworthy. As opposed to serving the vegetables within the pockets we all know and love, Grotto makes something closer to lasagna with sheets of pasta separating aromatic wild mushrooms and fresh, cut-with-a-spoon diver scallops. The arugula and the mushrooms are a necessary fresh element alongside the truffle oil, which verged on overpowering the rest of the meal.
None of these dishes is particularly vogue right now. In fact, in foodie circles, Italian and French restaurants are dying out in favor of Southeastern Asian, Japanese, Latin American and Middle Eastern food. When a young hipster takes his or her partner out on a date, probably the last place they will go is to a nice, romantic Italian restaurant. Yet, there is something classic about a romantic Italian meal over candlelight, from the salad caprese to the obligatory chocolate dessert. It never gets old.
Grotto is the restaurant equivalent of Shakespeare in Love. It’s sappy, it’s traditional, but there’s something so accessible and comforting in that. You can revisit Grotto on Valentine’s Day, on anniversaries, on first dates. A meal there is consistently lovely. As cliché as the décor is, as lacking in creativity the menu may be, Grotto can still surprise you, even over a bowl of garlic soup.