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Betsy Block

Here and There

Restaurant Review: Red Sauce

Take a boy who was born in Italy, give him a head for business and an eye for trends, raise him in the United States and what do you get? Joey Crugnale, restaurant mastermind and businessman extraordinaire.

He turned Steve's, at one time a local ice cream shop, into a multimillion dollar chain; he used fire and pizza to conjure the alchemy of Bertucci's; next he opened Naked Fish, the Cuban seafood chain; and when sales at some of the fish restaurants started lagging, he replaced four of them with his most recent venture, Red Sauce. The Newton location opened in November and is the fourth pearl in Crugnale's epicurean strand.

Clearly, Joey Crugnale is a genius at what he does -- franchising decent food at good prices. The problem with any chain, though, is that quality control gets tricky. On the upside, chains have economies of scale, which translates into lower food costs. Many entrees at Red Sauce hover around the $10 mark; the most expensive tops out at a reasonable $12.95. The buzzword here is value.

Dinner at Red Sauce officially begins when a waiter brings over not just a roll or some slices of bread, but an entire baguette already wrapped in a white paper bag in case there's some left over at the end of the meal. It's classic Crugnale: He likes to create good will  by welcoming people to his restaurants with free, homemade bread. The "good value" theme worked at Bertucci's, and it seems to be working here; on a cold, rainy Wednesday, the main dining room is nearly filled, and on an even more ominous Saturday night the place is so packed that the entryway feels like a subway at rush hour. Crugnale seems to have hit another home run.

The gratis bread is accompanied by, strangely enough, the eponymous red sauce that's more like tomato puree than a sauce. It could use some herbs. Even better would be to serve the bread with something a little less avant garde, like, oh I don't know, butter or olive oil. Otherwise, the bread itself is good.

For appetizers, the fritto misto, a plate of fried calamari, broccoli rabe, zucchini and onion strings, sounds great but arrives flabby. The chicken Marsala "with lots of mushrooms" is compromised by a too-sweet sauce. The penne, broccoli and chicken in a cream sauce is bland. The cream sauce has hints of lemon but nothing else to zip it up.

On the brighter side, an Italian chopped salad with Romaine, white beans, olives and tomatoes in a lemony vinaigrette is fresh and good. Three garlic shrimp are perfectly cooked and full of garlicky flavor, and the arrostocinis -- four skewers of tiny pieces of lamb tasting simply of olive oil and rosemary -- are very nicely done. The Three Tenors is a combo pasta plate that comes with house-made ricotta gnocchi; pumpkin ravioli with sage, which are good but taste like they're coated with cream and not the advertised brown butter; and a smoky, flavor-packed penne with sausage and roasted peppers. And I have only one complaint with the sophisticated thin-crust potato and rosemary pizza: more topping, please. But I'd order it again.

If the restaurant isn't too crowded and you have a say in the matter, see if you can sit in the room by the bar. It's quieter and more soothing than the room across the way, which is bigger, noisier and has walls half-covered in a distracting decoupage of Italian magazines and papers. Would a few simple black-and-white photos be so terrible? Sometimes, less is more.

Desserts are brought in from Italian bakeries. They're OK -- the lemoncello cake is light and citrusy; the tiramisu is fresh, but not noteworthy. The wine list, with about two dozen Italian bottles, maxes out at $30. There are more than a dozen wines by the glass and lots of Italian cocktails.

Crugnale once said he wanted to own Bertucci's forver. Well, forever must have come and gone without my noticing it, but in a way, he really hasn't left Bertucci's behind. Indeed, the ghost of his first major success lurks within the walls of Red Sauce, with its free bread and affordable Italian fare. And why not? When it comes to the food he loves best, Joey Crugnale has the Midas touch.