Joey Crugnale is almost unique among the better-chain operators in that he has succeeded with more than one idea. He first appeared on my horizon at Joey’s Ice Cream, the alternative to the first Steve’s Ice Cream in Somerville, in the 1970s. He made his first pile buying and expanding Steve’s into a chain, then selling at the peak of ice-cream madness. A little later, he made a second and larger pile at Bertucci’s, again selling near the top of the market. He was well on his way to a third pile when margin squeezes began to affect his 10 Naked Fish restaurants. Seafood is not as cheap as cream or pizza dough, and it's harder to downscale in a recession. Red Sauce is an adroit repositioning of four (so far) of his fish restaurants to capture more family and cheap-ticket business. It’s not that Crugnale never fails — he couldn’t revive the chain of Bailey’s ice-cream stores, and tanked with a phony-Cajun concept called Jambalaya — but he’s managed to deliver consistent quality and value with three very different concepts, where even successful restaurateurs have trouble with more than one or two locations of their best idea.
Red Sauce harkens back to the Italian-American restaurants of the ’50s and ’60s, which were run by Southern Italians first venturing into the smaller cities and suburbs. Pizza was not necessarily on the menu (it is here, but in a minor role that perhaps honors a non-competition agreement with Bertucci’s). Red sauce went on everything; the most exotic thing on the table was a shaker of grated cheese. For baby boomers, Red Sauce is a chance to recreate their childhoods, taking their own children out to the same kind of restaurant that was such a treat back when middle-class kids didn’t eat out more than a few times a year. It’s not like the ’90s never happened when you sit down at Red Sauce, but there are no Tuscan vegetables or pesto. Recent developments are subtler, like better tomatoes, fresh basil, pumpkin ravioli, tiramisu, and prominent fried calamari and broccoli rabe.
It’s " real Italian food " by implied comparison to Bertucci’s, but tinged with nostalgia for many diners. Certainly we begin in the ’50s, with oven-toasted white bread, a long, thin roll you have to tear open to reveal steamy, tasteless, glutinous hot fluff inside. No pour of olive oil, of course, but not the old-fashioned pat of salty butter, either. With the bread comes a small bowl of the red sauce, and it’s a very good sauce, thicker than marinara, seasoned with salt and hot pepper, but not excessively, and not as heavy as Bolognese. You get another bowl of this with the fritto misto ($6.95), a lavish combination of fried calamari, onion rings, zucchini strings, and a near-tempura of broccoli rabe. Rabe is the signature vegetable of Red Sauce, the way snap peas and broccolini were on many platters at Naked Fish. Like all fried food, this is best the minute you get it, so share this platter before it turns limp on you.
Tomato-and-fresh-mozzarella antipasto ($3.25) is small, but the tomatoes are pretty good for the season, and the basil and mozzarella are excellent. They’re even better on the bruschetta ($3.25), buttery toasts with chopped-tomato topping. Chicken-escarole soup ($2.95) is quite good also. These appetizers, unlike the fritto misto, are low-priced because they’re a little smaller than what we’ve been seeing, which many diners will welcome. The downsizing fails only on the arrostocini ($4.25 for four/$7.75 for eight/$11.25 for 12). These are the skewers of lamb known locally as " Eastie Barbecue, " but here they are nearly as small as satay. As a result, the meat on mine was overdone before it developed any grilled flavor.
The pizza, judging by my potato and rosemary ($12.25), is even thinner-crusted and crispier than that of Bertucci’s, although I didn’t get the hint of wood smoke most Bertucci’s pizza picks up. The potatoes are cut so thin they don’t produce much flavor, just more crunch, so the main flavors are salt and rosemary, but it’s a large oblong pizza (like Todd English’s, but wider and crunchier). It’s dinner for two, or a 10-slice appetizer.
My favorite entrée was handmade pappardelle with lobster, shrimp, and calamari ($12.75). The wide ribbons of pasta have the extra bite of the handmade, and the seafood is very fresh and well served by the red sauce, with some added lemon and fresh basil. There’s quite a lot of lobster meat. Abruzzi gnocchi ($9.50) are somewhat heavy, but the red sauce with added cream and prosciutto is again very good. A special on roasted chicken and tomato ($10.95) was simple and elegant, with a garlicky-peppery side of sautéed broccoli rabe ($1.95 as a side order). Because this is " real Italian food, " there is no spaghetti and meatballs, but you could combine a simple order of linguine with red sauce ($7.95) and a side order of meatballs ($1.95) — a little spicy and lean by ’50s standards — and pretend.
The wine list at Red Sauce is full of Italian reds that go with, well, red sauce. One of the cheapest glasses, a Montepulciano d’Abruzzo ($5.50 glass/$18 bottle) from Masciarelli, is a little sweet and short, but up to the job. Deadly limoncello liqueur ($5.95) is available, and the " Shirley Temple " came with no fewer than seven maraschino cherries. Water was frequently refilled, and coffee ($1.50) is served in an individual metal pot.
The desserts are priced below really fancy desserts but above the basic Italo-American desserts, and are of similar middling quality. Ricotta cheesecake ($5.50) is creamier and less grainy than the old stand-by, and not really as good. Tiramisu ($5.25) is good but not special. Chocolate-fudge cake ($5.95) was my favorite of the flight, but not quite strong enough. A limoncello cake ($4.95) comes off as almost a plain golden cake, and Italian rum cake ($5.95) has a little chocolate cream, a little sponge cake, a little vanilla cream, and so on. In the ’50s and ’60s, Italian restaurants like this had two desserts, both from the ice-cream freezer: tortoni and spumoni, the latter sometimes with a red-wine sauce. I don’t know if kids today would eat tortoni, which had chopped almonds on it, or spumoni, which had nuts and fruit in it, with different flavors touching each other.
The Newton Red Sauce is already packed early, even on weeknights. The staff communicates with walkie-talkies, and will give you a pager as in a mall restaurant. The rooms are decorated with wallpaper featuring Italian newspapers and magazines, and the floors are checked with red and white tiles, while the tablecloths are not. There is some Sinatra-type background music, although Andrea Bocelli would be funnier. Service, the bane of chain restaurants, is quite good. Our waitress was the first in years to pronounce bruschetta correctly, with a hard " c. "
Robert Nadeau can be reached at RobtNadeau@aol.com