Fine Italian Dining

by Bill, Joy, and Blythe Purdin
Photos by Jody Scioletti

Editor's Note: People really fight to get the Marblehead Magazine restaurant assignment and it's easy to see why. The assignment is to go anywhere you want, order anything you want (including extra appetizers, entrees and desserts), drink whatever you want -- all for free -- but you must give our readers a fair and entertaining review. We don't mind the expense (and sometimes it's just plain ridiculous) but the reviewers must taste and report.

Obviously, the task -- the burden -- sometimes falls to the publisher. It's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it.

Pellino's is nestled on the driver's side of the Washington Street extension. You could easily miss the steamy windows lined with twinkle lights. But, as the saying goes, go slow, because up the stairs at 26 Washington Street is a chef-owned-and-operated restaurant that you should definitely visit as soon as possible.

The truth is, many of you already know it and love it. Pellino's opened over three years ago. We should have gone in a long time ago, but there's so little time, and so much to eat.

As you enter Pellino's, a small, compact service bar greets you. We tend to eat early, so even with the dining room nearly empty, we were immediately aware of being transported out of Marblehead as the waitress ushered us past many romantic little tables, to a cozy trellised booth (one of five) along the wall.

Blythe, our daughter, was with us at this point taking it all in. "I like it," she said. "It's not like being in Marblehead." She was looking all around as though scanning in information for later reference. Because of a previously planned Girl Scout meeting, she had to leave and walk around the corner to the Rec & Park building, so she reviewed the menus quickly. "I could eat here," she said, giving the restaurant the only endorsement it probably will ever really need. Kids make snap decisions, while we ponder on. She waved good-bye, promising to return for desserts.

Like innocents walking into wonderland, it was clear at this point that neither of us truly understood what was going to happen to the Purdins at Pellino's that night. So, we returned her wave and began reviewing the menu.

Lobster & Shrimp Diavolo jumped off the menu for me, while Joy started reviewing the pasta dishes. The waitress brought warm, fresh breads, virgin olive oil, with a dish full of beautifully roasted garlic cloves, arranging it all on a little plate in the center of the table. She recommended an appetizer called Cozze Pesto mussels, with a light basil pesto. But in keeping with the Marblehead Magazine tradition of giving our readers a broader view, we ordered, in addition to the Cozze Pesto ($6.95), Char-Grilled Calamari ($6.95), and the Grilled Portabella ($6.95). Meanwhile, waiting for our appetizers, the virgin oil and roasted garlic on fresh homemade bread was delicious.

The dining room is very cozy and quaint in all the right ways. It's authentically elsewhere. It's not just a paint job and decor, it's real. We kept thinking what a great place Pellino's would be for a function or a party because people would forget they were in Marblehead. Fresh flowers on the linen-covered, tile tables, booths that enforce an intimacy that suits Italian food, the lighting was nicely subdued but still there was enough to easily see everything without squinting.

As the appetizers arrived we noticed that a lack of impatience and a sense of relaxation had begun to set in. Where all too often in restaurants, one might be looking for reasons to criticize, in Pellino's, we were happy and anticipating good things on the way.
And, we were not disappointed. The appetizers, were it not for our deep devotion to our readers, would have easily been enough, and we surely would have stopped right there. The mussels were fabulous. Truly a dish to seek out and enjoy for its own sake. Ordinarily, mussels sort of bore me, but not at Pellino's. The Portabella was grilled perfectly and quickly disappeared, and the grilled calamari was surprisingly excellent. I really chose that appetizer for my friend, Nancy Sarles, who loves calamari. Hey, Nancy, you'd love it! (I'm sure she's already had it many times. Nancy knows restaurants.)

Just one or two more sentences on the mussels: the light basil pesto was so delicious, we were dipping the fresh, warm bread into it. Obviously, we were now building up momentum and were in full anticipation of the entrees which arrived without delay.

After a lengthy discussion with our waitress, Joy had acquiesced to her strong (almost insistent) encouragement to try the special Rack Of Lamb, grilled and served with rosemary Chianti wine just ($20.95). She really wanted to try the Fettuccine tossed with spinach, artichoke hearts and wild mushrooms with garlic olive oil ($12.95). But, she was absolutely right to go along with our waitress in her recommendation. The next morning Joy was still talking about it. "Fabulous." "Unforgettable." "Let's go back."

The other two entrees we ordered were the Veal Pellino (the restaurant's signature dish) and another special, Lobster and Shrimp Diavolo. The Veal Pellino ($14.95) was in the same category as the rack of lamb. The sauce, a port wine blend with shitakis, sun-dried tomatoes and fine herbs, conspired with the roasted small potatoes and the veal to create flavors and textures that were simply irresistible. I had to tear myself away to begin tasting the Lobster and Shrimp Diavolo. This dish ($19.95) held a whole lobster, out of the shell, in a zesty tomato sauce, garnished with large jumbo shrimp, over angel hair pasta. The lobster and shrimp were very fresh, the pasta light and perfectly prepared and the sauce was scrumptious. What can I say? I was torn between the entrees, so in keeping with our dedication to our readers, Joy and I were forced to have a dinner few can enjoy. All for you, our readers. The problem is, we have tried to convey the tastes and the pleasure, but like all moments of intimate enjoyment... you really had to be there. Joy said the next morning, "That was decadent, Bill." I said, "Some days being married to me are better than others, right?" She said, "That's for sure."

Incidentally, in my excitement, I forgot to mention the little "house salad and house vinaigrette" that was quietly served sometime before the appetizers and after the roasted garlic and virgin olive oil. The salad was full of little crunchy surprises, greens of all kinds and mild onions all in one of the best vinaigrettes either of us had ever had. I had the mental picture of Francesco Pellino preparing this little salad, secretly thinking to himself, "They think it's just another little house salad, I'm going to surprise them." The lasting impression of Pellino's for me is of a chef who really cares and who believes that success is in the details.

With this thought, the desserts began to arrive. Naturally, just for you, we ordered four: Tiramisu ($4.50), Chocolate Mousse Cake ($4.50), Creme Caramel ($4.50) and Crepe & Zabaione ($4.95). All of these desserts defined the category. The Tiramisu lived up to its reputation, and while sometimes you can be disappointed with Tiramisu, at Pellino's you won't be. Light, rich, full of layered flavors and creamy in its finish. The chocolate Mousse Cake, which we ordered for our now-returned-from-Girl-Scouts daughter, was excellent and watching her devour it, with a glass of cold milk, words were clearly unnecessary. The Creme Caramel really deserved a palate to itself, it was so perfect and the caramel still lingers in my mind. But of them all, the Crepe & Zabaione achieved a clear supremacy at the table. The zabaione cream, warm apple slices, and the chambord liqueur glaze created a dessert so delicious that when Joy tore herself away from her Tiramisu (I had to talk her into it) to taste it, there was a long moment of silence in which she stopped chewing and just tasted. Her eyes opened a little wider, and she looked right at me, intensely. "That's incredible," was her only comment and she reached for another bite.

Marblehead Magazine has never given the five star () notation in a restaurant review. And, to be honest, I never expected to do it here. But sometimes, a restaurant comes along, with a chef whose special outlook and approach to food and commitment to his customers, that an almost-mysterious chemistry of time and place occurs.

Pellino's is such a place. Take advantage of it, but you'd better make reservations.

EDIT. NOTE: All Marblehead Magazine restaurant reviews are of the "man in the street" variety. We do not attempt to pose as experts on cuisine or as true critics of the restaurant world. What we do attempt to provide is a one-night, one-family review that is a fair representation of what happened, that night, when no one expected us.

 Our Star Rating System

Forget it, stay home and cook yourself.
Adequate, but you'd probably be happier at Wendy's.
Quality dining.
Unusually prepared and presented cuisine.
World class dining close to home.