What does “Italian coast” mean, anyway? At Faccia Brutta by Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette, that means a lot of things, most of them very, very good.
To Bostonwe make stars, but in my dream job, we’d size restaurants using only Randy Jackson-isms, who I’ve admired ever since american idolare at the pinnacle of their precision and sneaky sweeping. Bistro with shaky recipes? “A little pitch for me, man.” Half-baked Scampo scam? “If you sing Lydia, you must to bring Lydia. During this time you would keep a “You could sing the phone bookhandy for a place like Faccia Brutta, Ken Oringer and Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette’s terraced brownstone on Newbury. the “coastal Italian” sign is my favorite showcase for the singular culinary styles of this duo. But if it fetches so many bounties, why quibble about the hardware? You follow good food where good food goes.
Faccia Brutta (Italian for “ugly face”) is actually Boston’s second Italian coastal location. When Bar Mezzana opened in 2016 with the same slogan, most of us glossed over the “coastal” part, seeing it as an atmospheric statement of intent: come for the pasta, stay for those sweet Italian coastal vibes. Now that Faccia Brutta has arrived, offering an equally sprawling Italian menu with even more Mediterranean flair (harissa, saffron, etc.), it all makes more sense. Oringer and Bissonnette, along with Executive Chef Brian Rae, bounce around the boot with ecumenical abandon, deftly weaving pantry staples and select dishes along the 4,700 miles of coastline from Croatia to Naples to the French Riviera, as well as islands closer to Tunis than Rome, with detours to Phuket and Jalisco, as well as a subset of snack foods of even more obscure provenance. There’s a large size green salad you can buy for $16 per person dressed with what I can only assume is authentic “creamy Italian”…it’s tasty! There’s a $38 anipasti crudités platter that would make Mehmet Oz whitewash. There are many things.
Fortunately, when Faccia Brutta nails it, which it usually does, the food is excellent, not just the execution but the polishing of the recipes. There is almost never a false note or superfluous embellishment: not easy to achieve when you cover this edible ground. Your best opening move is to order a drink – the Negroni and spritz menus are particularly solid – along with some snacks to munch on to help you out while you come up with a game plan. Perhaps hot and crispy Castelvetrano olives ($12) stuffed with pork sausage, anchovies and red pepper, coated in gluten-free breadcrumbs and layered on a refreshing drizzle of dried pepper aioli? Or maybe thin strips of mortadella ($12), the color of pink and white marble, topped with roasted pistachios and a splash of bright green basil pesto? The only items I could skip are warm fried mozzarella sticks ($24) topped off with a drizzle of Ossetra caviar but stripped of their stretchy purpose, and potato chips ($22) with a green goddess dressing that pretty much erased the caviar that overcame it, and, anyway…this concludes my TED Talk on First World Issues.
I don’t know who you like for crudo these days, and Boston has plenty of worthy examples, but my fantasy league the past few years has been Lynch (Bar Mezzana), Serpa (Select), Maslow (everywhere where he plays), and Oringer/Bissonnette (just as good at Little Donkey, Coppa and Toro). Faccia Brutta valiantly confirms the duo’s raw-ficionado cred. My personal favorite was the ruby red shrimp ($24): Dressed with a minimalist twist – a drizzle of licorice-flavoured Thai basil oil, a scattering of diced marinated rhubarb – they had a luxuriously supple texture and simmering freshness. It’s called ruthless ingredient management, folks, and I’m here for it. The richness and velvety texture of live local scallop ($23) pairs beautifully with grated black truffle and endive, and black sea bass crudo dressed in tomato water aguachile ($18) was a balanced burst of fiery freshness from the shores of…somewhere delicious.
Likewise, I don’t know where on the windswept coast of Italy, they have a tradition of brushing handfuls of rusty-orange “crab butter,” made from pulverized roasted crab innards, on half-shell clams ($22) and bang them hard. on a hot grill until browned and sizzling like they do at Faccia Brutta. But if I find out, I jump on a plane. It was extraordinarily good. The muddy butter raised the intensity of the bivalve ocean, while the burly baby morels took the melody an octave lower. A tangle of spring onions upped the sizzle on the table, adding a crisp green crunch. Speaking of butter, another winner is the Grilled Lobster Scituate ($56), which gets a nice heat kick from a fiery splash of homemade chili-garlic crunch that tops the butter-whipped lobster. brodo coat the steamed clams and fregola pasta in a delicious way.
The finesse of the chefs with the cuisine of fish is even more evident in the perfect skewer of local swordfish spiedini ($15), which is painted with bright green salsa verde, then removed from the grill at just the right time. Parted with the tines of your fork, it crumbles into tender, still-wet swaths – not the chalky density you get when you spend even a few seconds. Laced with fennel pollen and fiery harissa, smoked grilled bluefin tuna ($39) – North African shawarma – in a pescatarian twist, with an appealing charry crust that usually requires sacrificing an inch or more of overcooked just off the surface. This one was flawless.
The pasta I tried was hit or miss. On the hit side, there were sensational Gulf shrimp and crab paccheri ($34), tossed in a bright yet complex tomato sauce with bouillabaisse intensity, and orecchiette ($33) in a rich tomato beef Sugo embellished with spices ‘nduja sausage. The rest seemed a little basic to me, or maybe just crowd pleaser, which would be a departure from the JK Food Group brand of chefs. I should probably check my omnivore privilege, but I’ve always admired the unforgiving, unforgiving sentiment of Little Donkey’s diet-agnostic menu, which comes across as an exhilarating “director’s cut.” A cut I wouldn’t expect to include a yawn like Faccia Brutta’s rigatoni cacio and pepe ($27 – there were peas!) or pansotti ($29), a ravioli-like specialty from the Ligurian coast that started well but eventually crumbled into a haze of nuts, brown butter and ricotta. For me, everything was fine.
I can’t say if the kitchen has been so bogged down in perfecting the suite of expertly made (commercially available) gluten-free pasta that they need more time to perfect these recipes, or if they just didn’t have the heart to send any home. competitors again. But it would seem that a big advantage of inventing a genre as you go is not being forced to offer seven choices of pasta. Maybe “coastal Italian” has, I don’t know, four.
Overall, service was smooth as a gentle Elban breeze, and every staff member I interacted with knew their stuff, though I never ordered as quickly as the evening a server gave our table a three-minute warning before the kitchen closes at 10:00 p.m.: you should probably release information as soon as you’re seated at a 9:15 p.m. table, especially if they’re gagging over drinks with menus still in turns.
Speaking of which, it was a pleasant surprise to see the beautifully curated vino offerings – a grape geek’s playground where quirky natural wines mingle with cru-level splurges and not a bottle reads like a grudging space filler. Especially for a block in Newbury where a stylish terrace restaurant like Faccia Brutta could easily phone in and, you know, sing the Rhone book (sorry…), it feels like an in-it-to-win-it flex, indeed. Seaside, outside.
278 Newbury St., Boston, 857-991-1080, facciabruttaboston.com.
Ruby Red Shrimp Crudo ($24), Crab Butter Knives ($22), Fennel Crusted Bluefin Tuna ($39)
★★★★ Extraordinary | ★★★ Generally excellent | ★★ Good | ★ Fair | (No stars) Poor