Taranta: Not Your Typical Italian Fare

It is always with the best of intentions that I set off with a bunch of friends in search of a decent dinner. Without the discipline to actually plan and make reservations at a pre-agreed upon restaurant, we figure that our chances of stumbling on to a fabulous meal are much improved if we wander around an interesting neighborhood that is densely populated with restaurants. Unfortunately, we usually are not the only ones with this idea and after several discouraging “45 minutes estimated wait time” proclamations from smiling hosts, hunger has led us to end up at McDonald’s one too many times. So it was with some trepidation that I headed for the North End on a Saturday night for dinner.

After marveling at the endless crowds at Mike’s Pastry and poking our heads into most of the charming Italian restaurants that line Hanover Street, we decided to commit our names to the waiting list at Taranta. Thankfully, just when we were nearing our bailing point, we were led to a table on the second floor of this cozy restaurant.

Settling into our table, Taranta certainly felt like a familiar Italian restaurant. The exposed brick, stone-tiled floors and open kitchen contributed to a homey atmosphere. After opening up the menus though, it was clear that Taranta was not another red sauce Italian joint proliferating in the North End. In fact, Taranta’s menu stretches over two hemispheres thematically and is dedicated to “cucina meridionale” which implies everything south of a meridian across Naples and Sardinia. This translates into food that is Southern Italian with a Peruvian twist.

To start, we stuck with tradition and ordered a bottle of Italian white wine from the Campania region (Lacryma di Christy 2002, Caputo; $35). The wine was delicately aromatic with citrus and mineral notes which proved to be a decent match for our meals, considering the diversity of food we were ordering.

Next, we had great fun deciphering the menu and its accompanying glossary of unusual ingredients such as pallares (giant Peruvian white lima beans) and huacatay (Peruvian black mint). However, we chose an order of the house antipasto to share as a familiar introduction. The large heap of artfully arranged morsels that arrived was one of the most impressive antipasti platters I have eaten. It included smoky curls of grilled zucchini and eggplant, excellent fresh mozzarella sandwiched between slices of very tasty tomato, pickled mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, artichokes, sweet-roasted red peppers, tiny tangy pickles and cured meats.

Following this we had a slew of tasty main courses. I personally can never turn down an interesting pasta and the fusilli avellinesi al artoccio definitely caught my eye. Arriving in a shallow dish was a parchment bag of slender fusilli interlaced with onions, pancetta, roasted tomatoes and smoky sweet peppers. The act of slicing open the parchment paper released all of the fabulous aromas of the sauce which permeated the dense pasta. The second unqualified hit at the table was a tender rack of lamb served over a warm orzo salad with arugula and cherry tomatoes. The entire dish was brightened with a vinaigrette made from Botija olives, which according to the handy glossary are the most exotic handpicked olives from Peru. Other dishes that disappeared with a smile before I had a chance to sample them included a simple tagliatelle pomodoro tossed with San Marzano tomato sauce “della nonna” (in the style of our grandmother) and a brined double-cut pork chop glazed with rocoto pepper (spicy red hot pepper) and served with a sautÿ of giant Peruvian corn.

We went back to basics for dessert with a lightweight homemade tiramisu cake and strong cups of smooth espresso before joining the jovial flow of people on Hanover Street. Shots of bracing limoncello, a sweetened lemon-infused vodka, are also a popular way to finish off a meal.

Named for the tarantella, the wedding dance of Southern Italy, Taranta is one of the more adventurous places in the North End. However, the warm ambiance combined with the unusual but successful juxtaposition of Italy and Peru make it a great place to sample with good friends.

Dinner for two: ~ $120 (including a bottle of wine)
210 Hanover Street (take the T Green or Orange Line to Haymarket)