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Entertainment Food & Dining

Restaurant review: Bigger isn't necessarily better at new Grano

Grano Pasta Bar, the popular and often-crowded Italian restaurant in Hampden known for its fantastic pasta, recently opened a second, larger location. Grano, also known as Big Grano, is a few blocks away in a former tea room. With the larger location comes an expanded menu, with more beef, poultry and seafood dishes.

But sometimes bigger isn't better.

The much larger — yet intimate-feeling — restaurant is a step in the right direction. There is much more space than in the original, cramped location. The wait staff was welcoming, and the restaurant felt like a picturesque bed-and-breakfast.

The artisanal bread from Bonaparte Bakery, which was served with a roasted garlic and olive oil, was a tasty start to the meal. The preparation of the oil, paired with the perfectly baked bread, more than made up for the fact that the restaurant does not serve butter. (We were told that the owner is a stickler for tradition. Butter is apparently not part of his.)

The Caesar salad was made with an eggless dressing, no anchovies and was served with a large crostini-like garlic crouton. The variation on the standard dish worked. The salty flavor of anchovies remained even in their absence, and each crisp piece of lettuce was coated in a rich, cheesy flavor.

The undressed Insalata Giulia was nearly flawless. The sliced boiled eggs revealed a perfectly cooked yellow yolk. The avocado was fresh and sliced evenly, the tomatoes plump and bursting with flavor. And the baby field greens were lush and crisp. But the salad dressings left something to be desired. I was intrigued by the pear vinaigrette dressing that is supposed to accompany the Insalata Verde, so our server gave us a side of it along with the standard balsamic vinaigrette. Both were overpoweringly acidic, and neither had a trace of sweetness. The pear vinaigrette was also lacking in pear flavor.

A main course of Linguine Zia Teresa was also inconsistent. The pasta and shrimp were both cooked to perfection, but the spicy, tomato-based sauce didn't do much more than provide a peppery heat. It felt one-dimensional.

My companion's Arista, or stuffed pork tenderloin, was simply a disaster. The pork was not properly trimmed. We found ourselves separating layers of fat from the meat, which was dry and overcooked. The meat was baked with prosciutto, which did not help its already too-salty sauce. The accompanying potato-stuffed ravioli was flavorless and downright weird. The doughy shell was overcooked. The mushy filling could have used some garlic, or any other herb for that matter, a little texture and some of the salt that was used on the pork dish.

A homemade meatball had a strange, mushy consistency. (The menu said that the restaurant's meat and eggs came from a farm where no hormones, antibiotics or chemicals are used. If this meatball was the result of that, then please find a new farm.) In addition to the consistency, the meatball could have used the help of some veal or sausage. It needed something to add some complexity. The red sauce that accompanied the meat might as well have been warmed crushed tomatoes from a can. There was no seasoning, no pizazz.

The tiramisu arrived in a blue bowl that reminded me of the plastic bowl a toddler would use to consume Cheerios. The creamy topping tasted of sour milk. The bottom layer of espresso-soaked ladyfingers was overly soggy, sitting in a pool of liquid at the bottom of the dessert, and overpowered by the coffee taste.

The coconut flan, on the other hand, was heavenly. Some flan has the tendency to be too eggy, but this version has a rich, custardy consistency subtly infused with coconut flavor and caramelized sugar. (Confused why flan is on the menu of a traditional Italian restaurant? Our helpful waitress explained that the dish is a recipe of the co-owner, Julie Padilla, who is from Colombia.)

The brightest spot of the meal was our server. She was helpful in suggesting wine. She provided a little bit of history involving the new location of the restaurant, and was very knowledgeable about the menu. She took a genuine interest in our dining experience.

Overall, the restaurant is suitable for a night out when you're in the mood for something reminiscent of home. Not everything is perfect, but there are still a number of choices that are done well.

Grano Pasta Bar

Where: 3547 Chestnut Ave.

Contact: 443-438-7521, GranoPastaUS.com

Hours: Open for dinner Monday through Saturday.

First courses: $2.50-$12; pastas: $13-$24; desserts: $3.75-$8

Food: ✭✭

Service: ✭✭✭✭

Atmosphere: ✭✭✭

[Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭ Good: ✭✭✭ Fair or uneven: ✭✭ Poor: ✭]

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