26. Rialto: In a word, underwhelming


The holiday are here and that means gift shopping, caroling gigs, tree decorating and lots of other wonderful time-consuming things. You might think the Best of Boston endeavors have slipped a bit, but that’s not entirely true! After our double “Inlawpalooza” of a Thanksgiving, I managed to cram in a two-fer of top Boston restaurants with my family. Unfortunately, the one I’m about to tell you about would not make it on my Top 50 List. It wouldn’t even make it on my Top Restaurants of Harvard Square list, which admittedly, has some stiff competition.


I was taking my parents to dinner and I was looking for something with mass appeal (not too exotic or bold), but a bit of elegance to impress and please them. “Hotel restaurants” tend to fit that description and I’ve always felt that it’s hard to go wrong with Italian food, so Rialto, a much lauded Harvard Square staple, seemed perfect. And in description, it was, with beautiful plating of humble ingredients. My parents were impressed at first, with the large windows looking out over Harvard Square and the white tablecloths and the appealing menu, but their excitement quickly dwindled.


My dad ordered “the soup.” There were actually two soups on the menu and he didn’t specify and the waiter didn’t clarify, so he got the wrong one. I wouldn’t blame this on anyone and he ultimately enjoyed his “unique but very good” Minestrone Verde, but it started the meal on the wrong foot. My mom ordered the house Insalata, which had light, delicate – one could even say bland – flavors. Mr. B and I started with a prosciutto plate served with a spicy cauliflower tapenade and chicken liver mousse. It was a solid appetizer.


For an entrée, Mr. B ordered the Rigatoni alla Campania, a pasta dish with braised tomatoes, capers, and olives. “It’s a fancy penne with tomato sauce,” he said, in his typical unvarnished way. I tried it. He was right, of course. It tasted like noodles and tomatoes, but nothing more. My mom chose an eggplant dish that was beautiful but boring. It tasted like dense, tender eggplant, but without depth or zing, or much appeal, really.

I had a half portion of the rabbit ravioli. This actually did have some layers of warm flavor, with pine nuts and cocoa nibs and figs – well one fig actually. The three pieces of ravioli would have been perfect if I’d ordered a secondi, but I didn’t, so the dish was quite small. My dad actually liked his bucatini with lobster, though he didn’t say much about it at the time.


For dessert we ordered a Chocolate Espresso Tartufo. I marveled at the crisp outer shell, frozen ice cream layers, and molten middle. (“How do they do that?”) But Mr. B felt I was overselling it because it was “really just ice cream.” And it was. I think at that point, I knew the meal was a dud and I was trying (in vain) to save it with a bit of optimism. Oh well.


As I think back on this meal, it doesn’t sound so bad. And it wasn’t bad really. When I brought it up a few days later, Mr. B said, “That was not a good place.” As usual, he had it pegged. It wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t good. Maybe we ordered wrong or completely missed an overzealous attempt at subtlety. After all, the menu, the decor, and the location seemed so promising. But the flavors fell flat and in the end, we were all underwhelmed.

The Charles Hotel
1 Bennett Street
(617) 661-5050

Rating: Skip it.

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