A once-in-a-blue-moon experience.
COLUMN: DINING REVIEW
A rapidly developing local legend is Avellino, and whatever they're saying about this new incarnation of a well-known restaurant location in Sturbridge, they're generally right.
The two-story modified historic home on Route 20 is still called the Whistling Swan and still houses the highly atmospheric upstairs pub now known under new ownership as The Duck. Avellino in the redone downstairs has a subdued ethnic flavor with an Italian menu that fuses tradition and creativity.
An online booking system worked flawlessly to keep the pace of the dining room relaxed and joyful and to respond thoughtfully to word that one of us would be looking for some vegan fare. Both the hostess and our server, Jill Oliver, were cued in advance through the website, and special vegan options were plentiful.
Four of us shared a large antipasti, Sicilian Calamari and vinaigrette salad minus cheese for starters. The vinaigrette was made there and, for its type, fairly thick in consistency as well as flavor. The calamari were tender, not fried, and shared space with sausage, hot peppers, capers, olives and tomato in a sweet, tingly marinara, shades of sweetnesses to come.
Like most of what we were served at Avellino, the flavor and color combinations in our large antipasti were equally attractive. They begged like kids in a tourist town to be photographed. But we agreed on the champion antipasti ingredient - pickled fennel. The moist orange slivers, I thought, perked up the abundant taste options most consistently. There was also bliss among pickled onions, fontina and bleu cheeses, salami and sopressato, but the vegetables were actually most noteworthy.
A couple of other appetizer choices, among the six in the $8 to $11 range, include Fonduta with goat cheese, Italian cheeses, crostini and tomato basi salsa, and Eggplant Rollatini with spinach.
One of us went with a Zuppa di Pesce, well-stocked with haddock and the full-range chorus of shellfish for $24.95. He described the broth as notable for its sweet flavor and was one satisfied diner.
Other companions let me sample veal Marsala ($21.95) with a mushroom risotto and a special vegan spaghetti preparation. ($17.95). The Marsala glaze hung thick and rich, and the risotto had just the right moisture consistency to hold together, patiently awaiting the fork but shy of being clumpy. The vegan preparation was a dish to behold, laden with the flavor and textures of artichoke, tomato, oil and a strong dose of basil. Pasta here is both homemade and supplied by local vendors, we were told. It tasted fresh enough.
My crab ravioli (Ravioli Grancio, $18.95) were as noteworthy for the large pasta pieces as for their crabmeat, which was not billowing. It was served in a flaming orange-colored cilantro-lime creme sauce with roasted red pepper coulis and crunchy grilled corn ragout, fun to splash and play in but even better to taste.
Fish, chicken, meat and pasta selections are available in about equal proportion, but beware that prices quoted here are for a la carte entrees, so be ready to bring it. Four of us would escape the house with a tab, minus liquor, tip and tax, of $158 (about $40 each). Also beware that menus here can change rapidly. In late August, a special lobster dish menu was in play both here and upstairs at The Duck.
As for server Jill, she wasn't idle but she wasn't absent, either. Call it reconnaissance or a sixth sense, she was there and not there for us as appropriate. Her wine guidance and knowledge for those who partook seemed on target as well.
The dessert idea was an easy sell. Along with espresso, my white chocolate mousse in a honey coated crispy wafer shell added a light, sweet finish to the experience, yet it was generous enough to take some home. That mousse along with two rich gelatos, one with cookie crumbs, comprised another dessert we tried.
A tiramisu loomed as a high mesa on the distant horizon across the table, where another dining companion both climbed and consumed it triumphantly.
And thus, under the blue August moon, we planted our flag at Avellino. There was agreement all around that a follow-up visit will someday be in store.
502 Main St., Sturbridge
* * * *
Phone: (508) 347-2321
Hours: 4:30-variable closing Tuesday-Sunday.
Parking/access: Private lot/handicap-accessible
Prices: Moderate to expensive
Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, Discover, American Express
Pluses: Expertly applied service to expertly prepared and wonderfully conceived dishes. Presentation flawless.
Minuses: One entree variably warm.
About the Stars
Perfection: * * * *
Very Good: * * *
Good: * *
Below Par: *
Serious Flaws: No stars
Restaurant reviews are the opinions of reviewers based upon at least one visit to the restaurant. The reviewer is accompanied by at least one companion. Recommendations from readers about restaurants they would like to have reviewed are welcome.