How do some restaurants manage not only to survive but flourish in what are hard times for an already risky business? Just when I think only chain restaurants will make it into the 21st century, I eat at a place like Boccaccio. You can easily spend $50 a person here, but it's packed on a Wednesday night. Which leads me to some rules for fledgling restaurateurs:
Rule No. 1: Location, location and, yes, location. Little Italy is still synonymous with a festive evening. People feel safer here than just about anywhere downtown. And if they can't find a parking place on the street, the lots are convenient.
Rule No. 2: Pretty is as pretty does. Boccaccio's dining rooms, with their soft lighting, peach walls, flowery curtains and Renoir reproductions, are pleasing without being so high style that people are intimidated.
Rule No. 3: Never make your customer feel uncomfortable, even though you're wearing a tuxedo and he's wearing a polo shirt. The service at Boccaccio is polished and unobtrusive, and your waiter won't laugh if you mispronounce "tiramisu."
Rule No. 4: The food should be good, but not too clever. People are willing to pay $27 for a veal chop if the meat is of such high quality they almost don't need a knife, if the kitchen butterflies it and grills it and sauces it deliciously with butter and wine. Serve it with buttery fresh green beans or fresh spinach with raisins. Nothing fancy. Just superb ingredients simply prepared.
Rule No. 5: Be all things to all people -- or at least some things to many people. Boccaccio has good old-fashioned Italian bread and butter plus trendy baguettes and focaccia with herbed olive oil.
A meal here might start with a homey lentil soup or an elegant carpaccio, the tissue-thin slices of raw beef arranged with mushroom slices and parmesan shavings. You can get fettuccine Alfredo or a more unusual pasta dish like the tagliolini tossed with wild mushrooms, prosciutto and a creamy sauce. For those a bit more adventuresome, perhaps tender baby squid stuffed with seafood on a bed of spinach.
Yes, the dessert menu features cannoli and tiramisu, but another possibility is sliced fresh fruit (nectarines and berries the night we were there), the juice infused with cognac. Delicious.
So how come I won't be going back to Boccaccio when my husband wants to take me out for an anniversary dinner? One reason only: Customers are allowed to smoke in the main dining room, right next to you even if you asked for the no-smoking section when you made your reservations.
925 Eastern Ave.
Hours: Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5 p.m.-11 p.m.; Saturday, 5 p.m.-11 p.m.; Sunday 3 p.m.-11 p.m.
Credit cards: Major
Prices: Appetizers, $6.75-$9.75; entrees, $12.50-$31