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Betsy Block

Restaurant Review: Ristorante il Fiorentino

The man on the phone at Ristorante il Fiorentino said they were renovating, but still open.

Renovating? It was a little worrisome. What if they had decided they needed to be more "respectable"? As we walked up to the restaurant's door, my friend sadly noted that the lamp with the large red bra (at least a double D) was no longer in the window. What did they do with it?

Ristorante il Fiorentino has been open and booming for an impressive nine years. It certainly can't be considered a secret, since getting into the place can take as long as it does at any downtown hot spot. But this place gently snubs the Big City by simply doing its own thing, cultivating a loyal and almost cult-like following, and feeding (or more accurately, stuffing) people with southern Italian classics as they always have, all on Main Street in Woburn. Renovating, eh?

As my pal and I are about to enter the restaurant, a man sidles up to us and says knowingly, "The food here is amazing." Who is this man? But I forgot about him as soon as I saw the fashion-forward mannequin posing theatrically in the doorway. Happily, both the live man and the plastic woman were a sign of good things to come.

Remember the missing buxom lamp? Mystery solved: It's been moved to the bar. That's a relief. And so is the fake rock garden with plastic flowers near the entrance, and the orange plastic chairs, mismatched vinyl tablecloths, Christmas garlands, mardi gras beads, fake grape clusters and the Happy Birthday sign. Amazingly, wondrously, they've decided to stick with and expand their -- uh -- decor by adding a front room -- a "patio," Luiz the co-owner calls it, with open umbrellas hanging like bats from the ceiling.

Given all this kitsch, the menu comes as a shock. Wow, is the food ever sophisticated -- and expensive. You're just not expecting it unless someone has filled you in, which they probably have because this place is a tribute to word-of-mouth advertising if ever anywhere was. In case your friend forgot to mention it, though, know that you will be leaving with leftovers, and possibly even a shopping bag full of leftovers.

After we order, the waiter brings us a vibrant bruschetta with fresh tomatoes, fruity olive oil and just enough salt to bring it all together. We didn't ask for it -- this is the "bread basket." But it's when we get a starter of broccoli di rappi and polenta that the fun really begins.
We're amazed by the bold flavors of this dish: the garlicky, lemony sauce, the rich, crispy-edged polenta, the bitter greens. We try to stop eating it, but can't. The grilled shrimp are a testament to treating the freshest ingredients with care. On this night there's no salmon or lobster in the house, so the chef won't make the zuppa di pesce. Artistic temperament and all.

Still curious, I order it on my next visit: the anise and roasted-garlic enriched zuppa is laughably huge; it comes on a platter brimming with swordfish, mussels, clams, lobster and salmon. The flavors in the broth are as deep as the ocean itself. They forgot the shrimp, but then so did I.

But the chef forgot to add shrimp to my husband's dish, too, and his depends on it. Pasta diva is a mountain of pasta covered with a rich sauce of olive oil, garlic, scallops, and, supposedly, shrimp. By now we've become friends with Luiz, since we are sitting at the bar which doubles as the restaurant's command central. He makes a big fuss over the missing crustaceans, embarrasses us all by making the sous-chef come out to apologize, then adds in a handful of gorgeous, sizzling shrimp even though my hubby's already had his fill.

OK, we get it now. Eating here is about living life boldly, madly, zestily. This is the Zorba the Greek of restaurants, if only Zorba were Italian. We watch as Luiz makes himself an iced cappuccino that is, I'm sure, a quart's worth of liquid; I have eaten until I'm stuffed and yet my takeout container is still as big as a tray.

By the time the dessert course rolled around, we felt like we might have to be rolled out the door. Still, we managed to try a few of the sweets offered, including the wonderful cannoli and the authentic tiramisu. The other offerings are all cakes made with various mousses.

The food here is full of cream, cheese and salt -- in short, everything that's supposed to be bad for you but is obviously the essence of a carpe diem approach to life. It's big, happy food served in a zany space. It's a formula that works; after all, they've already made it longer than most restaurants do, and that's without all the attendant buzz that such places usually have to rely on. It feels like a find. Really the only caveat is that the unbridled exuberance here means that when Luiz tells you how long you'll be waiting for a table, he's probably being overly optimistic.

They don't take credit cards here  -- "We take personal checks, cash or your car keys," Luiz had told me on the phone -- but they do offer a charming, enchanting night away from the woes of the real world.

Don't come if you mind that there's toilet paper instead of paper towels in the bathroom sometimes, or that your wine glass is actually a brandy snifter, or that you have to bring your own bottle in the first place because they don't have a liquor license. Come because you want to be fully sated by a night of laughter, lamps wearing lingerie, and too much to eat.