New Casual-Dining Italian Bistro Knows the Formulaic For Success
This location is closed
Buono opened in the Mount Washington bunker building recently vacated by McCafferty’s. Encountering the new restaurant makes for a small jolt. The owners have stripped away the former fine-dining plushness, packed away the linens, and otherwise brightened up the place. Some of the changes work—there’s a good flow to the rooms now, achieved with platforms and open partitions. The choice of furnishings and busy fabrics typically associated with airport and mall restaurants, however, alerts you that Buono isn’t aiming for inventive contemporary dining but sliding down that slippery slope of casual eating.
The menu bears this hunch out. The choices are entirely safe, consisting almost wholly of such well-traveled favorites as chicken Marsala, veal parmigiana, and fettuccine Alfredo—the most exotic ingredients on the menu are black olives. On the other hand, the prices are appealingly moderate; veal and chicken dishes run in the midteens, pasta dishes a bit lower. Buono was crowded when we visited on a recent Saturday night, suggesting that the casual approach always at least encourages a look-see. Everyone can use another reliable restaurant.
But casual dining is tricky. When done right, even on the large scale of a chain, diners, myself included, will happily forfeit adventure and romance for consistency and value. Done badly, though, you wind up with nothing—neither the small thrill of experiencing a noble effort nor the contentment of spending money wisely. And Buono’s mediocrity wore me down.
Both the kitchen and service staff performed sluggishly when we visited. Our heroic waitress acknowledged that the restaurant may have “hit a wall” that evening. This fact would help explain, if not entirely excuse, why so much of what we saw at Buono looked thrown together or half-considered. Of our starters, the bruschetta ($6) satisfied with colorful and ripe Roma tomatoes, as did a house salad ($4) with the surprise of fresh spinach and a sprightly vinaigrette. But a hot Italian antipasti ($13) encircled, to no good effect, a pile of cheese-stuffed eggplant with baked clams, sautéed shrimp, steamed broccoli, and button mushrooms. Taken individually, these components were treated with only passing interest by the kitchen—nothing had been seasoned, marinated, or otherwise prepared. Taken together, they were a klutzy mess, something a compulsive eater might fashion out of refrigerator scraps.
Chicken Fiorentina ($17) arrived in similar disarray and yielded a comparable disappointment. All of Buono’s chicken entrées make use of chicken breasts, which panders to health-conscious diners at the expense of flavor. The chicken breast used in our dish, served intact, was too large and thick to absorb the timid and watery garlic and white-wine sauce. The dish would have fared better had the chicken been sliced and sautéed. As it was, the chicken disagreed with the plate’s spinach, eggplant, button mushrooms, and fibrous asparagus spears.
Filet mignon alla Valdostana ($22) provided a lesson on how to ill treat a good piece of beef. Left alone, or addressed nicely, this steak would have succeeded with juiciness and full flavor, but Buono topped it with an unflattering white-wine garlic sauce, prosciutto sliced too thickly, and a gratuitous slab of mozzarella cheese. The only way to enjoy this dish was to scrape away the prosciutto, cheese, and sauce.
Tortellini tricolore ($15) was much, much better, a simple but efficient recipe of cheese-filled pasta, peas, Italian ham, and onions in a vodka cream sauce. Buono makes no claims that its pasta is homemade, and nothing about this dish implied that it couldn’t have come out of a bag or a can—but it worked. The portion was large enough (we took some home) to encourage further exploration of Buono’s pastas, although some more ham would have been welcome.
Sometimes chefs, saddled with an owner’s idea of cuisine, get to show their true mettle with daily specials. A salmon special ($27) offered little more than workmanlike efficiency. The salmon was seasoned agreeably, broiled nicely, and topped with a decent pesto sauce. The salmon lover at our table enjoyed it immensely. Accompanying linguine, topped scantily with jumbo lump crabmeat, was similarly satisfying and entirely unadventurous—which speaks directly to the restaurant’s predicament. The problem here isn’t Buono’s lack of daring, but its failure to satisfy diners consistently on the modest terms it has laid out for itself.