Kevin Maher steers clear of dishes from central casting. “You won’t find chicken parm, spaghetti with meatballs, or chicken Francese or Marsala on the menu,” he says of ITA101, his Italian BYO in his hometown of Medford. Maher wants to broaden customers’ sense of Italy’s regional styles. Hence the restaurant’s name, short for Italian 101.
Medford, a Pinelands hamlet with a charming downtown strip, has proven receptive. Weekend reservations are hard to snare. Maher, 43, a CIA grad, returned to Medford in 2012 after 13 years cooking in the northern Italian region of Lombardy, at storied restaurants like Il Luogo di Aimo e Nadia, a Michelin two-star in Milan. He worked locally before opening ITA101 in late 2015. His parents still live in Medford, and his business partner, Tony Sparacio, lives nearby and owns Riviera Pizza in Medford.
The Italian 101 concept shouldn’t be taken too literally. The regular menu doesn’t specify which part of Italy dishes come from. The servers, cheerful and poised, can often tell you that, but not much more. Only the supplemental Weekend Regional Menu, which changes weekly, immerses you in a given region. Still, you will encounter dishes at ITA101 that you won’t find elsewhere.
Maher or Sparacio make pasta each morning, and Maher’s recipes expertly showcase it. His pappardelle in an intense wild boar and red wine ragù was a joy. He lavished golden strands of tagliolini (like spaghetti, only flatter) in butter sauce with shavings of Umbrian black truffle for an outright umami fest. In another successful dish, he served tagliolini with shrimp, mussels and clams in a spicy tomato sauce. Earthy chestnut flour fettuccine and a venison ragù conjoined happily. All were so wonderful, it was easier to forgive clumped cacio e pepe and thick-skinned spinach ravioli stuffed with ricotta and shrimp that had no discernible seafood flavor.
To keep diners engaged, Maher runs a five-course pasta-tasting menu on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Thursday’s menu centers on specific ingredients, recently broccoli rabe and opah, a large, unusual and tasty fish that is warm-blooded.
Most interesting are his Weekend Regional menus. The one I experienced focused on Basilicata, which my server identified as “the arch of the boot,” nestled between Calabria’s toe and Puglia’s heel. The entrée was seared swordfish on coco beans and a purée of dandelion leaves, topped with crushed pistachios and briny sea beans. The swordfish spoke to the centrality of the sea in Basilicata; the beans and leaves; to the tradition of foraging in a region wealthy in scenery but poor overall; the pistachios; to the Arab influence that began in Sicily and eventually crossed to the mainland.
Being familiar with Italian food history, I made those connections for myself. My point is less that the server didn’t point them out than that Maher’s dish painted a coherent picture of Basilicata. The only problem was that the swordfish had been over-seared, rendering its surface coarse and dry.
My two visits showed Maher to be inconsistent with seafood. One night, the octopus in a salad special was rubbery. On the other, in a different salad, it was tender.
Aside from pasta, Maher is best with meat. I loved a luscious short rib braised in red wine on a purée of roasted romanesco broccoli. Quail, a tricky bird to cook right, came crisp-skinned and moist, with sweet-and-sour cabbage, pancetta and walnuts.
Desserts such as gelati, sorbetti and panna cotta vary in quality; each category is prone to hits and misses.
Tiramisu, however, must not be missed. The server assembles it tableside, soaking the ladyfingers (made by Maher’s mom) in hot espresso, laying on a blanket of mascarpone and dusting the surface with cocoa powder.Click here to leave a comment