A Hamburger Today

Boston: Braised Pork and Veal Meatballs with Toasted Orecchiette at Rendezvous in Central Square

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[Photograph: Liz Bomze]

Of all the restaurants that sit on my to-eat list for months or years before I get to them, the one I most regret waiting on is Rendezvous in Central Square. I don't have a good excuse for the delay; the best I can come up with—and it happens to be the truth—is that though the praise I heard for the place was consistent and enthusiastic, there was also a lack of pomp and fanfare that kept its reputation relatively low key. I'm ashamed to admit it, but I simply got distracted.

(Put another way, Rendezvous is like that that quiet friend you had—the one who was always overshadowed by your more boisterous, attention-grabbing comrades, but who turned out to be the most down-to-earth, interesting, and unaffected of them all.)

At least, that's the thought I walk out with every time I finish dinner there. (In my effort to make up for lost time, I've dined at Rendezvous about six times in the past six months.) Chef/owner Steve Johnson couldn't be more gracious, and his food hits that remarkable combination of smart, well-executed, totally unpretentious, and just a bit out-of-the-ordinary.

Prime example: His inspired take on meatballs with pasta, which Johnson considers one of the restaurant's signature entrées ($25). It's a riff on a toasted orecchiette dish that he ate at a small mom-and-pop restaurant in Puglia, Italy, more than 15 years ago, where the key technique turned out to be frying the "tiny ears" of pasta in olive oil until crisp-chewy and golden brown around the edges.

Johnson, a self-described "tinkerer," says that he's successfully applied the pasta-frying technique to multiple dishes over the years—the Italian original included chickpeas and tomato sauce—but that he finally hit upon a winning combination when he matched it up with the restaurant's braised pork and veal meatballs. The house-ground meat is fattened up with a little bacon and fatback, tenderized with a classic milk-and-breadcrumb panade, and lightly spiced with coriander, maras pepper (Turkish style paprika), smoked Spanish paprika, and allspice—a nod to the years he spent living in the North African enclave of Montpellier, France

Then, to finish the dish, he adds sautéed maitake mushrooms, frilly kale leaves, a ladle of full-bodied roasted chicken broth, and grated piave cheese. As the elements soak together, their respective flavors and textures meld into one of the most brilliantly crafted dishes I've ever had. (The enriched broth makes perfect dipping fodder for the terrific crusty bread he serves.)

Word to the wise: It's a very hearty portion, and if you've already filled up on appetizers (try the sautéed bluefish cakes, vegetable antipasto, and Moroccan spice-crusted scallops), have the leftovers packed up for next day's breakfast and indulge in a helping of the seasonal fruit crostada with bitter caramel sauce and honey-lavender ice cream and/or the totally awesome lemon-buttermilk pudding with huckleberry sauce.

Rendezvous

502 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge MA 02139 (map);
617-576-1900; rendezvouscentralsquare.com

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