Before you go to a restaurant, what do you want — or need — to know most? In our series, The Rundown, we’re sharing all the essentials about newly opened (as well as some of your favorite) restaurants.
Today, we’re in Boston at Orfano, the upscale Italian-American restaurant from chef-restaurateur Tiffani Faison. Located just steps away from Fenway Park, this posh spot — with velvet-upholstered banquettes, mahogany paneling, and gilded light fixtures — is Faison’s swankiest establishment.
But there’s also plenty of lightheartedness at play here. An affable bartender rolls a tricked-out beverage cart to your table, ready to stir up a bespoke cocktail. Nearby, a server seasons a guest’s Caesar salad using a comically large pepper mill. And it’s impossible to miss the portrait of a spaghetti-eating Lady Gaga, caught mid-slurp, peering out from an oval frame on the wall.
When Orfano opened in the late summer of 2019, it joined Faison’s three other restaurants — barbecue joint Sweet Cheeks Q, snacks-and-drinks spot Fool’s Errand, and Tiger Mama, the chef’s love letter to Southeast Asian cuisine. (It’s closed now, but Faison will soon debut a new dining concept in the space.) All four venues, under the umbrella of Big Heart Hospitality, Faison’s restaurant group, sit side-by-side on a busy stretch of Boylston Street. Each showcases the chef-restaurateur’s brilliant sense of occasion and penchant for playfulness. The James Beard Foundation Award nominee (thrice up for Best Chef: Northeast) is also pragmatic. In the middle of a New England winter, and with Omicron keeping restaurants on their toes, Faison decided to launch a new menu at Orfano. But as Faison shares, there’s more to the revamp than a pandemic-pivot.
1. The chef says it best: Orfano’s new menu is “like chicken Parm in a really gorgeous setting.”
“We’re calling it ‘Little Red,’” Faison explains, referring to the theme of the revised menu. “We wanted to do something really fun — something that felt a little more convivial, with a homey Italian-American vibe. We sat down, and said, ‘What are the things we love to eat and love to make?’” That brainstorming session yielded a long list of favorites that are now on offer, including Nonna’s hot garlic bread, served as a sliced mini-loaf; Italian-ish chop salad, adorned with rosy slices of salumi; a delicious, pull-no-punches meatballs alla Raia; and a zesty shrimp scampi that delivers on its promise of “garlic for dayssss.” Menu items, printed in a font with a spontaneous feel, remind you of hand-written specials on a chalkboard.
2. Little Red reaffirms the tradition of Sunday gravy.
The menu tickles that part of your brain where nostalgia resides. At the same time, these dishes remind you that this is not your father’s red-sauce joint. But the team has smartly carried over a feature of your favorite trattoria from childhood: the Sunday Supper Family Dinner. You start with garlic bread, then choose an appetizer, a pasta, and an entree for $45 per person. (It’s the prix fixe you enjoyed long before the phrase entered your dining-out vocabulary.) One night, you could begin with a taleggio-stuffed arancini, tuck into fusilli alla vodka, then move on to beef osso bucco Marsala. On another evening, the progression might look like a lovingly-dressed Caesar salad, a saucy bucatini and meatballs, and a fillet of roasted branzino, served on warm cannellini beans. Add on a dessert like tiramisu or a finale called “Chocolate Cake for Two, Kween.” Your server will understand if you run your finger through the piped-on buttercream before digging in with a fork.
3. Even with red sauce on the menu, this spot can’t resist a bit of glamour.
Like the hem of a ball gown peeking out from a puffy winter coat, Orfano cannot suppress its predilection for glamour. A supplemental menu entitled “Little Red Goes Super Luxe” hearkens back to the restaurant’s high-rolling, pre-pandemic months. Caviar cannoli arrives to the table as a pair of crisp pastry cylinders stuffed with crème fraîche, caviar, and minced chives. Similarly decadent is lobster bucatini, showcasing al dente noodles and chunks of the crustacean, tossed in tangy brown butter sauce. And if you’re feeling carnivorous, indulge in a Rob Roy ribeye, a 30-ounce prime long bone, aged with koji (the microbe that makes miso and sake so magical) as well as Scotch and vermouth, just like its namesake cocktail.
4. Don’t be shy. Ask about the Family Jewels.
Speaking of cocktails, don’t pass up an opportunity to sit at the bar. Multi-petaled fixtures suspended above the pearlescent counter cast gentle light onto whatever you’re drinking. Principal bartender Rob Boudreau, formerly of No. 9 Park and attired in a purple smoking jacket, will treat you right. He’s mixing up drinks from a cocktail list, cheekily named “Family Jewels.” Liquid gems sport names like “Genuine Seduction” (Tequila, mezcal, star anise, agave, and mole bitters) and “Palma Boys Social Club” (bourbon, oloroso sherry, vanilla, and Earl Grey).
If you’re seated in the dining room, by all means take advantage of the handsome beverage cart, rolled to your table upon request. And if you’re wondering whether the option is a bit too kitschy, we guarantee any skepticism will melt away once the suspendered bartender asks how you like your martini. Chatting while stirring is his forte. He’ll even invite you to choose a finishing essence — such as rosemary-thyme or cardamom-mace — then mist your drink using a vintage perfume atomizer.
5. Rest assured that you are in excellent hands when it comes to wine.
We can’t say enough good things about Charlie Gaeta, wine director of Faison’s restaurant group. We’ve followed him for years, ever since he was beverage director at The Blue Ox in Lynn, Massachusetts, and later, at Branch Line in the Boston suburb of Watertown. (It’s not just industry insiders who miss his selection of Sardinian and Corsican pours at that latter venue.) The wine pro is keen on introducing adventurous imbibers to less-explored terroirs and underappreciated grape varieties. Last year, for example, we spied a deep selection of aligoté wines — made from Burgundy’s oft-overlooked white grape — on Tiger Mama’s wine list.
At Orfano, Gaeta celebrates Italy’s vinous classics on both ends of the price spectrum. That means you can spurge on a venerable bottle of Barolo from 1985, the wine director’s birth year, or opt for a bright and lively carafe of nebbiolo from a Piedmont winegrower whose entry-level pours punch well above their weight. In the mood to celebrate? The last time we visited, we counted no fewer than 20 different Champagnes on the list, just waiting to be uncorked.
6. You’re never too old to enjoy fried ravioli.
No matter what you’re drinking, do not miss the crispy ravioli. The delectable pillow of ricotta-stuffed pasta — the circumference of a soup bowl — is breaded then fried so it’s crunchy-crisp. It’s plated on tomatoey sugo and showered with Parmigiano Reggiano. We hope we’ll never think of ourselves as too grown-up or too sophisticated to relish the nostalgic dish. Faison agrees. “Really,” she says, “we’re still just kids who like to stuff our faces.”