Didn’t this used to be called Todd English Rustic Kitchen? It did indeed, but the famous chef handed it over to his former partners to settle a lawsuit. The partners hired a lesser-known chef, Bill Bradley, formerly of Bricco and Carmen in the North End. Bradley has a different, more-minimalist style than English, and a recent visit to Rustic Kitchen suggests that he is still working out how to handle a much larger menu in a much larger and busier restaurant. Bradley does have the advantage of being on the premises, without the distraction of responsibility for other restaurants from Charlestown to Las Vegas.
On the minus side, Rustic Kitchen was designed to showcase Todd English’s specialties, and Bradley has had to cope with that. The center of the room is the wood-fired pizza oven, and while Bradley’s " rustic pizzas " are more modestly priced ($9-$14) than English’s " flatbreads " had been, the thin crusts are drier and the toppings are less effective. Bradley is also trying the oven for baked-pasta dishes like those at Antico Forno, but on our busy night the oven got so backed up that our server offered to make two delayed entrées complimentary.
However, the overall direction at Rustic Kitchen is clearly upward, with obvious improvements in the pastas and small plates, better focus on the true center of the Mediterranean (Italy), and upgrades in the cheaper part of the wine list, the desserts, and the tea. The breadbasket is about even, with sourdough Tuscan bread and nutty multi-grain slices to dip in a buttery-tasting broth.
The fried calamari ($10), which had a scent of scorched oil a year ago, is now light and whistle-clean-tasting, with a few fresh herbs, slices of chili pepper, and decorations of tartar sauce. Bruschetta ($12), with four large, plump, juicy shrimp, is built on good grilled toasts with chopped tomatoes artfully improved with lemon juice, vinegar, and maybe a pinch of sugar. A Greek salad ($9) has feta cheese and sliced red onion, but also adds baby-spinach leaves, bits of boiled beet, and white beans — all to excellent effect.
Where Bradley really shows his stuff is with an entrée of veal agnolotti dal plin ($16). Pasta pouches stuffed with veal sound a little dull, but this dish concentrates the latent meatiness of the veal filling to a remarkable degree. Agnolotti means " priests’ hats, " but the " plin " means that they’re pinched. The magic, however, is not in the shape but in the flavor of the filling. In contrast, veal scaloppine with crispy polenta ($19) has twice the meat but half the flavor, although it is a reasonable version of a veal scallop in marinara with some capers and excellent crescents of fried corn-meal mush.
A special of " Many Preparations of Pork " ($24) was definitely post–Todd English. English pushed the idea of a plate with a lot of extra side dishes piled vertically. On this special, based on a suckling pig, Bradley used the contemporary three-turrets-on-a-long-plate presentation we’ve seen at new upscale restaurants for about a year. The best was a simple rack of tiny ribs baked like porchetta, but I certainly also enjoyed the perfect risotto topped with cracklings. The slightly weaker link was braised leg — suckling pigs are too young and tender to braise well — layered with zesty rhubarb chutney.
A daily seafood special of swordfish ($15) came to the table nicely done, a decent steak perched on a bed of julienne vegetables, the cutest being split spears of asparagus. The sauce was full of capers and olives, which used to be called " alla puttanesca, " a quick-cooked sauce made by prostitutes between customers, according to folklore. Apparently, the demand for quick cooking has made fallen women of us all.
Now to the oven dishes, which came late. Our rustic pizza was chicken-caesar salad ($12). I don’t think much of pizza with salad on top, so on my own I would never try this increasingly popular dish, but I don’t order for my guests. This pizza is tricky to make and serve, as the underdressed pizza shell can burn — our thin crust did in places. Then you have to spread the salad on top and get it to the table before the heat of the crust wilts it — ours was a little wilted. The chicken cubes were very good, as was the dressing, so the components are solid.
Macaroni and cheese ($14) is very good. The pasta are big spirals, and they aren’t buried in a lot of creamy sauce, just enough to coat and flavor the pasta, which retains a little chew. A few peas dress it up, yet the children of tourists will also like it fine. Baked rigatoni ($15) was the last dish to arrive, and some of it was still cold. It might be very good, as I enjoyed the pink sauce (tomato plus a little cream); the cold cheese lumps started the day as fresh mozzarella.
The wine list looks like a transition from the short, pricey, eclectic list of last year to something with more inexpensive and Italian bottles like our Zaccagnini sangiovese ($7 glass/$26 bottle). This is listed as 2000, but we were served the 2001, and it might be better in another year. The wine seller’s phrase " dusty fruit " describes this wine well, as it had the fruit flavor of a basket of berries, but each taste ended with some tannic astringency. If the owners can get enough of this, the current vintage should be quite good drinking by fall. Coffee and decaf ($1.75), strong points last year, are still very good. The tea service ($2.25) is better, with bags in two-part china pots, so you actually get brewed tea.
Desserts — which aren’t served at the North End restaurant where Bradley last worked — are likewise improved. I especially liked the gingerbread ($7), served hot in an iron pan with baked pears, apple chips, and spiced ice cream. The best of it is the spicy, rich gingerbread, as it should be. I also liked the plate of three cannoli ($7), one classic with a few pistachios, one very lemony, and one double-chocolate (although our shell was overbaked). Bread pudding ($7) is bland at the price, although the garnish of grappa-soaked cherries is terrific, and the chocolate biscotti and vanilla gelato on top disappeared right away.
This is not a great location, except for the traffic, of course. The room is really a glassed-in terrace off the historic market building, with cold flagstone floors and an awning-like ceiling. Not only is the bathroom a hike outside the restaurant, but on cool spring nights when the terrace is open, it's generally loud and the air is disturbed by fans and heaters, making it hard to taste the food. To its credit, the management has toned down the background tapes. Tables also seem less crowded.
Service was generally good, except for the acknowledged oven lags. Our waitress was the first in about a year to pronounce " bruschetta " correctly. She neither refilled nor removed the breadbasket, and scrambled the tea orders a little, but worked hard to get around kitchen problems.
Robert Nadeau can be reached at RobtNadeau@aol.com