Monday, April 30, 2012

Suburban dining

Fine dining, close at hand

April 29, 2012 | Taryn Plumb, Globe Correspondent

WINCHESTER - Thirteen years ago, when Tuscan-born chef Vittorio Ettore was scouting for a location to open his first restaurant, he didn’t go for the obvious choice of Boston. Instead, he opted for something a little outside the city, in Medford.
Last November, when Ettore expanded to a second restaurant, he went farther west, settling on a slightly less urban spot in downtown Winchester.
“In the city, there are always so many people coming in and out. You don’t get that close relationship as much with your customer,’’ Ettore, chef and owner of Bistro 5 in Medford and A Tavola in Winchester, explained of his decision to locate in the suburbs. “You do get that outside Boston a lot more.’’
His decision to forgo the crowded Boston culinary scene represents a growing movement: From Somerville to Salisbury, many communities north of Boston are blossoming into strikingly diverse dining destinations in their own right, with Winchester being one of the most recent to develop its culinary cachet.
“All around the state, there are little communities, little enclaves, that have become restaurant-centric,’’ said Peter Christie, president and chief executive officer of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, a nonprofit trade group.
Fitting in with that theme, regional restaurant weeks and “taste of’’ events have taken off around the country, Christie said.
Salem recently held a 10-day spring restaurant event, showcasing nearly two dozen of its casual and fine dining spots. Portsmouth and other Seacoast towns took part in a similar nine-day event in late March. Other dining-themed events have been held throughout the Merrimack Valley and in Greater Newburyport.
Winchester recently showed off its culinary offerings at the Griffin Museum of Photography’s sixth annual fund-raiser, A Taste of Winchester.
In less than two years, four new restaurants have come to town, according to Janet Wolbrom, associate director of the Winchester Chamber of Commerce. They include A Tavola on Church Street, the Black Horse Tavern on Waterfield Road, the Rodeo Mexican Grill on Swanton Street, and the Stone Hearth Pizza Co. chain, which is planning to launch a new location on Main Street.
The new additions join old standbys such as Lucia Ristorante and Bar, the Greek Grille, La Patisserie bakery, and Swizzles Yogurt.
“Winchester really has a little bit of everything,’’ Ettore said. “There’s a decent variety of restaurants.’’
And that’s a common selling point around the region.
“You can really come to downtown Lowell and feel you’re eating in another country,’’ said Danielle Bergeron, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Lowell Chamber of Commerce, noting the city’s mix of Greek, French, Southeast Asian, Mexican, and Italian fare, as well as good old pub food. That lineup has been accented by the downtown newcomer Fuse Bistro, which offers American food with French and Asian influence.
In Newburyport, Enzo Restaurant and Bar and Brown Sugar by the Sea are new arrivals. Then there are the longtime town favorites, such as the Grog, Michael’s Harborside, Starboard Galley, and Agave Mexican Bistro.
“We hold our own,’’ said Ann Ormond, president of the Greater Newburyport Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which has 40 member restaurants.
Restaurateurs who settle in the suburbs are looking to cater to the convenience factor for residents, and also capture an often untapped audience that wants to go out to eat but doesn’t necessarily want to make a big production of it.
“They don’t want to drive to Boston, they don’t want to deal with the hassle of parking and traffic,’’ Donato Frattaroli, owner of Lucia Ristorante in Winchester, said of the majority of his customers, who come in from surrounding towns.
His brother started the restaurant in 1986 because he saw a dearth of Italian offerings in the market. Frattaroli said he would like it if even more eateries opened in Winchester, to create more diversity and ignite more curiosity among out-of-town foodies.
“It’s kind of like the staycation, but on an even more local level,’’ Bergeron said of the trend.
“I definitely think there’s that movement of eating local, staying local, supporting your downtown,’’ Ormond agreed.
That’s been Ettore’s experience. Bistro 5 draws Medford residents and Tufts students, as well as diners from Somerville, Cambridge, and Arlington, he said.
A Tavola in Winchester, meanwhile, sees diners come from Lexington, Burlington, Stoneham, and Arlington, but mainly they are local residents.
“I can’t believe how many people from Winchester won’t even go to Bistro 5 because it’s a few towns away,’’ said Ettore, who lives in Winchester.
Still, from a culinary standpoint, smaller towns can sometimes mean bigger challenges. For one thing, it’s harder to find quality help, Ettore said, because new culinary graduates want to be in Boston, where the action is.
And in the case of A Tavola, he has tweaked a bit, as any new restaurant does, making some portion sizes bigger and adding simpler offerings - such as a rigatoni-and-tomato-sauce dish- to his more high-end stable of octopus, squid ink pasta, rabbit, and cuttlefish.
Some of those items, he acknowledged, could be a little too exotic, especially for a small-town restaurant.
“We added dishes that are simple, put together, that people can handle without having to look things up in a dictionary,’’ he said.
But ultimately, whether you’re in Winchester, Boston, or even Tuscany, it’s all about what’s on the plate, Ettore said.
“No matter where you are, you should be able to have good food.’’

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