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The Sybarite’s Table

Centro: Fine Dining, If You’ve Got $40

By Winnie Yang

If you walk a bit too quickly down Mass. Ave., you might miss Centro, a new little trattoria next to The Good Life bar in Central Square (you actually enter Centro through TGL, as a little notice on the door indicates). Just several months old, this charming establishment is a great addition to an area riddled with McCrappyFood.

We started with a whole slew of antipasti ($4 to $8): the calamari comes grilled plain, not fried in a heavy, greasy batter. The squid is very tender but unfortunately loses much of its taste in the grilling process. I liken it to eating a charcoal briquet. The accompanying bliss potatoes make up for it, however. I prefer the carpaccio myself; the shaved parmesan adds an almost crunchy texture and a mild saltiness to the beef, which is itself pretty tasty.

Everyone else seemed to like the prosciutto, but I wasn’t that enthusiastic about blood oranges on top. The bruschetta is definitely the highlight, simple as it is -- brushed with olive oil and topped with creamy ricotta and beautiful cherry tomatoes and mushrooms in a light vinaigrette. The servings are a bit paltry, however: a generous heap of vegetables cleverly hiding a single lonely-looking toast.

The homemade pastas (half portion, $8, full portion, $15) here are especially satisfying. One special that night, an open-faced ravioli with a spicy, chunky meat sauce is quite good, but the garlic gnocchi is definitely the standout -- all comforting starchy goodness in a thinner marinara sauce, covered with a bit of cheese. I should note that the half portions are quite small; they are just large enough to serve as an additional side dish.

The main courses ($12 to $18) are fairly standard, but very well done by Chef Rene Michelena and his staff. They come unadorned and simple (no crazy sauce graffiti to be found here), accompanied by especially noteworthy vegetable and starch sides. The striped bass is grilled to perfection, but the bed of leeks underneath makes the dish even better. The leg of lamb, another special that night comes very rare, but tastes a bit on the fatty side.

The stuffed pork chop, while quite good, had, as my friend put it, stuffing the size of a raisin. The accompanying cauliflower pleased him, however (which is remarkable, considering that he dislikes the vegetable). The roasted game hen is excellent, tender and juicy -- but whatever, it’s just chicken. The cubed squash, potatoes and sweet potatoes that come alongside are very good.

At last, my favorite course: dessert. I’d heard a lot about the creme caramel, and it is superb, though I much preferred the fried fruit ravioli. They are reminiscent of cinnamony doughnut (albeit much, much better), but are more ravioli than fruit (the latter is almost indiscernible to me). The lemon pound cake is good: very simple, very dense, and accompanied by a very rich mascarpone. The chocolate cake is also well done, but not particularly exceptional in the way of desserts. The rustic fruit crostata -- known in some circles as apple pie a la mode -- is excellent, though not especially memorable.

Well, I should mention that you’ll have to pay more, but in most cases, it’s worth it. I should also warn you that with a 10-table capacity, Centro doesn’t do well with larger groups and they don’t take reservations. That said, the small space lends wonderfully to the ambience; the room is much cozier than next-door. The waitstaff are a nice bunch too, accommodating and friendly.

Centro is essentially a higher-end comfort food establishment. Total damage was about $40 per person (but as you can see, we were rather liberal with the courses). This place does a fairly good job with its food -- outstanding at times -- but there are several more noteworthy places in the same price range I’d go to before returning here. If you’re in the neighborhood, however, and you’re in the mood for something a little more satisfying than an enchilada or some middling chicken korma, check Centro out.