Downtown Worcester has never really been known for its restaurant scene. Sure, there’s a few places to grab lunch, but after 5 PM it’s usually a ghost town.

It’s not that anyone hadn’t tried to bring nightlife to the heart of our city either. A while back 55 Pearl opened up, but couldn’t sustain the lack of foot traffic (or any traffic) that Main St. serves up after the sun goes down. Irish times closed down, Woosta pizza moved acrossed the street and no one could find it anymore, McFadden’s Mcfaded away, and even the Galleria closed its doors. For a while, downtown seemed like it was destined to be just a bunch of empty buildings.

With time comes change, and change has brought a new life to downtown. The Citizen, Armsby Abbey, The Muse, Bull Mansion, Rice Violet, and Deadhorse Hill are all leading the way to what I hope becomes a revitalization of the dining and nightlife in downtown Worcester.

With its industrial look, farm fresh menu, and unique vibe Deadhorse Hill has definitely made its impact on the food culture of downtown.

Sourcing locally, changing the menu seasonally, and being cooler than the ice behind the bar is now the norm if you want to open up a place anywhere north of chandler on the main drag.

Parking is still a little rough downtown and on a Friday night when the Palladium has a show going on, finding a decent place to park is a bit of a challenge. I managed to find a place a few blocks over, and in no time at all I found myself sitting at the bar ordering a cocktail.

The bar serves as a cafe and lunch counter during the day, and at night offers up a place to sit while waiting for a table. The dual purpose space really works well, and the need to keep your doors open from lunch till dinner in downtown is crucial — kudos to them for thinking things through.

The bar spans just about the length of the dining room. It’s filled with vintage bottles of liquor, LED lighting, and a variety of mismatched cocktail glasses. It’s definitely impressive, and  clearly meant to be the focal point of the dining room.

The cocktail, beer, and wine list gathers interesting and different varieties of drafts and spirits you might not have heard of, but will definitely want to try. The bartender took great care in crafting my Old Fashion and it was perfect.

Now onto the menu and arguably my biggest gripe with my experience at Dead Horse.  

We know you guys are edgy, hip, and ahead of all the trends when it come to food, but not all of us are. The menu at Dead Horse reads more like an ingredient list rather than your traditional menu. Its starts off listing the options of “small”, “pasta”, “large”, and then “also”. Of course we all know that “small” = apps., “pasta” = is well pasta, “large” = entrees, and “also” can be assumed to be snacks or tapas. So they should just say that. There’s no need to make anyone play some cryptic word game when ordering diner.

I started my evening with an order of wild hen-of-the-woods mushrooms. If you’re wondering what that is, don’t worry — I was too.  To me, anyway you serve a mushroom whether it be roasted or sauteed it’s going to be good, so it didn’t bother me that there was no other description. The mushrooms came out sauteed in a good amount of flavorful herbed oil and were absolutely delicious. I then moved on to my second course Fried brassicas.

Again if you’re reading this and wondering what the heck is fried brassica you’d be well within your intellectual rights not knowing what it is. Brassica species and varieties commonly used for food include broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, choy sum, rutabaga, turnip and some seeds used in the production of canola oil and the condiment mustard. Just say fried broccoli. Your chef comes off as a pompous know it all when he uses words like brassica instead of broccoli. I guarantee that the kitchen would have sold twice the amount of orders that night if they had just changed a simple word.

Beyond the language used to describe this dish, it was incredible. Fried but not battered, beautiful crowns of broccoli laid atop a silky puree of Israeli hummus. This dish could easily have been a meal of its own. A vegetarians dream. So flavorful and crispy the broccoli had this chard, fried flavor that was mellowed out by the lemon and herbs laid atop a authentic mediterranean hummus.

Surprisingly, for the season I thought there were too many seafood option for entrees. After all the fish I ate this summer, I decided to go with the aged duck breast. Again, just like my other two choices, no description on how it was to be prepared, or sauces that might accompany the dish, so I put my trust in the chef and waited patiently.

Once my meal came out I was very pleased with its presentation. A towering dish of light pink duck breast was placed before me. The center of the duck breast had been cooked perfectly and fanned out atop an enormous and delicious potato croquette smothering a pile of braised greens.

The outside of the duck breast, however, had quite a thick cap of fat and skin. It was rendered to a nice golden color, but I wished it had been rendered a little more. It could have been a bit crunchier, the thick layer of skin made the breast chewy to the bite. The flavors and techniques used in preparation where all outstanding and translated through well to the dish. Overall, it was a very delicious end to a wonderful diner.

The Bottom Line: 

Food

The food is outstanding. My only qualm with the menu is the language and descriptions. Deadhorse hill uses fresh, local ingredients and doesn’t over complicate their dishes with ingredients you’ve never heard of, if written in layman’s terms. The ingredients are all pretty basic but get distorted by over the top chef lingo.

Service

Service was wonderful. The bartender and staff all looked pretty relaxed and could offer up a suggestion of their favorite menu items or cocktails without a second of hesitation. They also offer up bread baked across the way from crust before your meal, and a small treat to refresh your palate when they deliver the check. It’s the little things, that really make the diner experience more pleasurable

Atmosphere and ambience

Both get a high score in my book. I’m a sucker for the that modern industrial look. Funky art and paintings that grab your attention, vintage bar nick nacks, and bold light fixtures all add tot that elegant city night vibe.

Price

The cocktails are all priced accordingly well, and the “also” category serves up rather inexpensive bar snacks. Apps and pastas are a little pricey but well worth the local and fresh taste. The entrees are all on the higher end of the spectrum. With a majority of seafood and steak making up the dinners, finding something under 30$ is a challenge. They even offer a hung, dry aged prime rib dinner for 110$.

Overall

I wouldn’t recommend this place to anyone who isn’t adventurous culinary-wise or on a limited budget. To everyone else, the price reflects the quality and skill, set forth by the staff to deliver a pleasurable dining experience.

There’s a little hidden gem over on Park Ave. camouflaged in plain sight. I never gave this place any thought until a good friend mentioned he had stopped there and grabbed some lunch and raved about how good the sandwich was.

The Sandwich Hut is one of those places you’ve driven by thousands of times, but didn’t realize was ever open, and by their looks you probably couldn’t imagine it offered up anything worth the time it takes to pull in and out of a busy intersection on Park Ave.

Lucky for you, I’m here so you don’t have to. This place is definitely worth the frustration of pulling onto Park Ave. This place is so good, it’s worth doing laps around Kelley square during rush hour!

I got there around noon, and before even getting out of my truck I knew that this place was going to be delicious. There was a police cruiser sitting in the spot next to me, and everyone knows that if the WPD eats there than the food has to be good! The parking lot was pretty busy and there were already a few people waiting for their orders, and some people were sitting down at the picnic tables enjoying their lunch.

Even though it reads like your normal sub shop, the menu at the Sandwich Hut is pretty big and is actually quite impressive. After studying the menu and going back in forth in my head I decided to order the Steak Bomb with a side of parmesan garlic fries. You can get their steak bomb with either shaved ribeye steak or steak tips. I went with the ribeye.

It took about fifteen minutes to get my order, pay and grab a seat at one of the open picnic tables. I was very impressed by the presentation of my sandwich, and my mouth was practically watering at the smell of those Parmesan garlic hand cut french fries.

The steak was unbelievable — cut great, with very limited fat, and no gristle. It came sauteed with portobello mushrooms, caramelized onions, red peppers and topped with fontina cheese served on a soft ciabatta roll.

As with any steak and cheese I braced myself for that first bite when inevitably half the sandwich falls apart and a stream of grease pours out. It never came. This was one of the cleanest “messy” sandwiches I’ve ever ate.

Straight from the horse’s mouth — those Parmesan garlic hand cut fries are AMAZING! Covered in Parmesan and just the right amount of garlic flavor. I’d go back just for an order of those!

The Bottom Line:

Food

The specialty sandwiches range from a homemade Cuban, to a braised pork Banh Mi, Steak bombs, Gyros, and sandwiches like a Greek style burrito. They offer burgers and salads and a few other sandwich options. There roast beef is marinated in rosemary and garlic and slow roasted to a perfect pink center. They have a three cheese grilled cheese with options like like fontina and fresh mozzarella. Small things like this really go a long way in distinguishing your restaurant. Being creative and paying attention to detail is a chef’s number one priority if he wants to set his food apart and stand out.

Service

Definitely order ahead if you’re in a rush. This is pretty much restaurant style quality — not a neighborhood pizza place. You can also order online, and they even offer a 10% discount on online pickup orders.

Atmosphere

The only problem with this place is its location. Situated on the corner of Pleasant and Park Ave.. it’s kind of a hassle depending on which direction you’re going. My other gripe about this place is if you’re not going to eat it right there, or in the front seat of your Toyota Camry, I can guarantee that by the time you get back to the office you’re going to have a soggy bun and some limp french fries. Good news — out of all the buns they could have chosen most sandwiches come on a ciabatta roll. Ciabatta holds up well in terms of a steam bath during transportation in a To-Go box. Hand cut fries? Not so much.

Price

The prices are great. This spot is a real bargain. Restaurant style quality without the gratuity and hassle of sitting down for lunch — just awesome.  Something that I personally admire about this place is: You can add a side of hand cut fries or housemade potato chips to any sandwich for 2$ and all their drinks are a dollar! That’s a steal!

Overall

Besides the location factor, I think the other thing that’s been hindering business is that most patrons don’t know what’s occupying the small hut “this month”. Although it’s been there for over a year now, it seems like this location has gone through a few different businesses over the past few years. There was a chicken wing place there for a hot minute, a different sub shop, a hot dog and sausage grab and go, and who knows what else. I sincerely hope that this place lasts a lot longer than all those other “fly by nights,” especially since it’s been open for over a year and I just discovered how good it was this week!

Fifteen years ago, I got my first job cooking in a little Italian place called LaScala on Shrewsbury Street. I remember thinking “This it it kid. Now you made it. Now you’re cooking on Shrewsbury St.”

Back then I thought Shrewsbury St. was the end all, be all to fine Italian dining.

Arancini di Rosa at Mare e Monti Trattoria

It wasn’t until a few years later when my education and career drove me to explore places like the North End in Boston and Federal Hill in Providence, that I realized there was so much more to Italian dining than pizza, Chicken Parmesan, and spaghetti and meatballs.

Though that makes up a good chunk of a menu at your Italian eateries, there’s a whole world of stews, white sauces [that don’t include heavy cream], fish, and lighter Italian fares than most people aren’t even aware exist in Italian cooking. The thing is, anytime you take a carb like bread or pasta, smother it in a red sauce (not gravy, don’t ever call it gravy) and melt cheese on it, well, the results are…[very] delicious.

As our city continues to melt and mold itself into the cultural crock pot we call Worcester, ethnic neighborhoods like Shrewsbury St. begin to fade away. Businesses spread out making way for new and different ethnic cuisines to fill the gaps. But if you’re in the mood for a true Italian pasta house reminiscent of old Italian Shrewsbury St. you’re in luck, Mare e Monti Trattoria on Wall street is the answer.

As soon as you walk in, you’re greeted by a vibrant bar. Dressed in blue neon lights, shimmering glasses and liquor bottles, the bar fills the space and grabs your attention. It feels sexy and sophisticated. Frank Sinatra records play, all while the hustle and bustle of pots and pans clank in the kitchen hidden away behind the bar.

The dining room features exposed brick walls, low lighting, and modern accent pieces, giving the room a real urban city like ambience.

Our hostess sat us next to a big party. Big parties tell me two things. One: this place has something for everyone and two: coming from a big Italian family, the energy from a big group adds to the italian dining experience. Laughing, joking, drinking wine, all while sharing a plate of pasta amongst family is what dining Italian is all about.

Before the server even told us her name, she hurried off and brought us back a big basket of Italian bread, some soft butter, and oil for dipping. While most places shy away from “giving away bread” Mare e Monti Trattoria embraces the tradition, above and beyond expectation.

We then ordered drinks and a few appetizers to start off the evening. My wife and I decided on the Arancini di Rosa and the Polenta con Funghi.

Polenta con Funghi

The Arancini was exactly what I was expecting. Three oversized stuffed risotto balls accompanied by a warm marinara. A crispy, golden brown exterior provided a barrier for the liquid gold of parmesan, mozzarella, and fontina cheese baked inside.

The Polenta con Funghi on the other hand I did not enjoy at all. This was the most disappointing dish of the night. There was way too much Polenta on the plate.

The Polenta not only lacked flavor, but was also way to stiff. Polenta is meant to be creamy, not gelatinous. The mushrooms also lacked the earthiness and aroma I was hoping for. The addition of a mushroom broth mixed into the polenta to create a depth of flavor and creaminess might have helped this dish a lot.

In hopes of redemption, we returned to the menu and ordered our entrees. My wife ordered the Pappardelle alla Bolognese and I order the Gnocchi Alessia and the Frutti de Mare (dont judge me, it’s my job to sample the menu).

Without a doubt I can say that my wife’s Pappardelle pasta was the best bolognese this city has to offer! A heaping bowl of fresh pasta absolutely smothered in a delicious San Marzano tomato  meat sauce. The pasta was cooked perfectly. The sauce was bursting with flavors of fresh herbs and a trio of simmered meats and diced vegetables.

The Gnocchi Alessia was also amazing. Little pillowy puffs of homemade pasta stuffed with goat cheese and roasted red peppers were prepared so perfectly they practically melted in your mouth. The light gnocchi really balance well with the dish. If they had been anymore dense, the pasta along with the sauce would have been way to heavy. You can tell a lot of thought and caring goes into the execution of Mare e Monti’s menu.  

The third entree of the night is the one I’m on the fence about the most. The Frutti de Mare at Mare e Monti’s is truly a feast of jumbo shrimps, clams, mussels, and calamari all atop a bed of [and I can’t stress this enough] perfectly cooked pasta. With a beautiful presentation, I felt the dish was a little too spicy for my liking. The menu reads “a touch of crushed red pepper” — this is where it gets a little complicated. It might just be me being picky, but the difference (not the only difference) between a Frutti de Mare and a Seafood Fra Diavolo is the amount of crushed red pepper you use while making the sauce and the addition of the peppers (usually pepperoncini). Minus the peppers, this dish could have passed for a Seafood Fra Diavolo. If it had been presented as a Fra Diavolo, and I had been in the mood something spicy, I would have enjoyed it.

Pappardelle alla Bolognese

Remember that big party the hostess sat us next to at the beginning of our meal? It happened to be the 21st birthday celebration of a friend of my little sister. Before we could even think about ordering dessert, our waitress presented us with two pieces of birthday cake that was graciously sent over by our neighboring table. This wasn’t your typical yellow cake with whipped vanilla frosting either. This was a chocolate nutella mousse cake, baked to order, at the request of their party. At Mare e Monti’s they make all of their desserts in house, and by all I mean the server literally comes over to your table with a dessert tray with at least six or seven homemade dessert options. If you can find the room I would highly recommend ordering dessert.  

THE BOTTOM LINE:

Food

A well rounded menu and wine list makes the dining experience at Mare e Montis a great choice if you’re in the mood for classic Italian Cuisine. The Bar offers a variety of martinis and cocktails along with housemade sangrias, and authentic Italian espresso to end [or begin] your evening.

Service

Great service and a knowledgeable staff make this place feel welcoming and accommodating. Everyone from the bar tender, back waiters and bussers, servers, and even the valet were helpful and polite.

Atmosphere and Ambience

No parking, no problem. Mare & Montis offers a valet service which is key being located in a residential neighborhood. Sexy, sophisticated, and modern best describes the dinning room and overall feel you get once inside. A great place to celebrate your little sisters 21st birthday, or bring your wife on that much needed date night.

Price

A bit steep for a casual night out dining. Pasta dishes range from $16 to $19. Entrees all come in around $20. The portions are huge. Anytime you go out for pasta and don’t have leftovers to take home, they didn’t give you enough pasta. You don’t have to worry about that at Mare e Monti Trattoria.

Mare e Monti Trattoria is located at 19 Wall Street in Worcester. For reservations, call 508-767-1800.

Sorry to those of you that logged on to read a review about where you should go have dinner this Friday night, I hate to break it to you: These reviews won’t be all kale, poached pears, and goat cheese salads.

This week I’m reviewing  a new sandwich shop that opened up in Worcester recently and if you haven’t heard about it yet, I can bet your going to hear about it soon.

Giovanni’s Bakery Italian Sandwich/Photo by Yussef Khalaf

About a month ago I found myself sitting in the barber’s chair at Justin’s Barber Shop on Grafton St. Enjoying my haircut, and the always colorful shop talk, when all of a sudden the subject changed to good lunch spots around town.

One of the barbers was telling the customers in the shop how he went to Giovanni’s Italian Bakery and Deli over on Hope Ave the day before and got an Italian sandwich.

The first thing I remember thinking was, “That must have been a good Italian. If you’re on a 30-minute lunch break, and you drove all the way to Hope Ave to get a sandwich”.

Well, it turns out, it is a damn good Italian sub.

Giovanni Sarli is the owner of Giovanni’s bakery and his Italian sandwich is one of the best around and here’s why: Everything is so fresh!

For those of you who think the bread makes the sandwich, over at Giovanni’s he bakes all his bread from scratch, fresh every day.

They don’t skimp on the deli meats either. His Italian sandwich has Ham, Prosciutto, Capocolla, Salami, and Mortadella all tucked away between two soft halves of an italian loaf.

You can also order some meatball sliders to snack on while you wait for your sandwich or pastry order! Once it catches on, this sandwich is going to contend right up there with the likes of the Regatta Deli Italian grinder, and Belsito’s Deli Italian.

The Bottom Line:

Food

Giovanni’s uses quality Boar’s head deli meat and high quality cheeses. They make all their meatballs and sauce from scratch. You can really taste the authenticity and home cooked flavors in all his products.

Service

Sandwiches are made to order. Not that it’s a bad thing, but anyone who’s ever been in Regatta or Bushel and Peck knows the convenience of the Italian sandwiches being pre-made — especially on a 30-minute lunch break.

If this place gets busy, or you have a big order, I’d call ahead.

Atmosphere and Ambience

The sandwich counter is located inside the bakery. You’re most likely to get waited on by Giovanni himself. There’s no seating inside, but there are a few tables out front you could sit. One more thing I should mention — if you’re the type of person who grabs that giant cookie or brownie that’s strategically placed near the register than proceed with caution, there’s two cases filled with pastries. Nothing like a cannoli to wash down that half loaf italian sub you just ate!

Price

You’re going to pay a few bucks more for a sandwich than you would at Regatta, Belsitos, or Bushel and Peck [for the record, I would never compare any of those places to each other – I think they all put out a good sandwich]. As far as the price goes, you’re paying for quality Boar’s head deli meat, on a fresh housemade italian loaf. Like I’ve said in other articles quality food =  $$$.   

I don’t see myself as a food snob.

I enjoy hotdogs from Coney Island just as much as I enjoy a steak from 111 Chop House.

Growing up in a working class family I understand the value of stretching a dollar at the supermarket to feed a family of four. I don’t think expensive food necessarily translates to good food either. Most good food has nothing to do with the monetary value, but more the time, love, and effort that is put into creating it.

In this world, anything and everything homemade can find itself with a hefty price tag. Often times handcrafted items are considered a prized commodity when they are tangible consumer goods, but unfortunately this does not always translate to food. With that being said, at first glance, the menu at Kummerspeck can seem pricey and even a little pretentious. However, I don’t believe that to be true in either aspect.

Situated on Water Street, next to Weintraub’s and across from the former Widoff’s Bakery, and with a name like Kummerspeck — the restaurant seems to fit right into this Eastern European immigrant neighborhood of old.

Zambone/Photo by Yussef Khalaf

The literal translation of the German word Kummerspeck is an adjective used to describe weight gain from emotional eating, in layman’s term, comfort food. As far as first impressions go, the entrance to Kummerspeck falls flat. The decor lacks some sort of art or character that other restaurants in Worcester have capitalized on.

Upon further investigation, the other side of the restaurant has a very quaint bar and deli case filled with all the delicious carnivorous meats you could imagine available for purchase by the pound. This seems to be more of an attractive atmosphere for dinner than the actual “dining room”, which is relatively bland in terms of decor and comes up short of the eclectic style they’re trying to achieve.  

Anyone with a weak constitution for the preparation and butchering of that night’s special, should be warned, the atmosphere of Kummerspeck might not be as appetizing to you as it is to me. The owners of Kummerspeck are so proud of their butchering background, in fact, that the main butcher block counter doubles as a bar for dinner service with a show.

Visible throughout the entire dining room, you can watch the executive sous chef Erin Hockey break down a rabbit, a whole pig, or a variety of locally sourced proteins. You will find better ambiance in places like Lock 50 or Dead Horse Hill, but you will not get half the quality and service that I experienced at Kummerspeck. Not only was our server and general manager amazingly friendly, but their knowledge and love for what they did really shined throughout during our entire dining experience.

Now onto the “meat and potatoes”. The average person is going to find it a little difficult to navigate the menu at Kummerspeck. This is typical for a restaurant of this caliber. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to use ingredients like foie gras, pastrami jam, sous vide carrots, or chicken liver mousse, but the inexperienced dinner guest is going to have a tough time understanding what this food tastes like just by reading the name.

Many of us have never eaten rabbit before, and therefore have no idea of the juicy flavorful bite a spoonful of braised rabbit can pack. If you took the best dark meat from poultry then added the texture of a braised short rib, and the flavor of a sweet glazed duck, then that’s what rabbit tastes like. If the expression “people eat with their eyes” holds any value, then it’s not just the visual appearance that is going to make people eat the food, but the written description as well. 

Pierogies/Photo by Yussef Khalaf

A mix of modern American cuisine with German and Polish influence, the menu also seems pricy, but you can’t look at it as a single appetizer costing anywhere between $11 -$15. The portion sizes are so big that you have to think of everything as being able to amply serve two people. A $15 charcuterie plate really is like a $7.50 charcuterie plate per person. The $16 Zambone is more like a $8 per person dinner for two.

I started with the charcuterie plate. This plate was dressed with some of the most interesting and exotic cuts of meats I have had the privilege of tasting. Everything from spicy coppa, black peppered duck breast, lamb ham, and my favorite, the pork rillette. This rillette was incredible. Not to salty, very tender, and flavorful I will definitely stop by their deli counter again to bring some home.

The next dish, in my opinion was the star of the entire meal, the Zambone. A pork trotter stuffed with merguez sausage, over red lentils and arugula, garnished with chicharones (fancy word for pork rinds). Unlike anything I’ve eaten anywhere in worcester lately this dish was so balanced, well thought out, and perfectly executed. The wilted greens mixed with the creamy red lentils really balanced well with the spicy merguez sausage. Although I didn’t want to eat anything after that, I also sampled the pierogis. Like everything else up to this point this dish did not disappoint, the pastrami jam was amazing. My only critique about this dish was I felt the chef went a little heavy on the mustard cream.

Next was the Zucchini fritters. Deep fried, seasoned shredded zucchini, laid atop a smear of chicken liver mousse garnished with sous vide carrots and candied pepitas (fancy word for pumpkin seeds). The presentation of this dish wasn’t as vibrant a dish as everything else we ate that evening, but none the less delicious. A little rich for me, my only critique would be that they went a little heavy on the smear of chicken liver mousse.

Drunk off the euphoric feast of expertly butchered and prepared meats, I ordered the rabbit spaetzle special(try saying that three times fast) for my entree. Rabbit is one of my favorite proteins, but not often found on menus, so of course I had to order it. Even though I only made it a few bites in, before surrendering to the limits of my appetite, this dish also came through with amazing aromas, a beautiful presentation, and overall satisfying end to a great meal

TWIW Review:

Food

Quality, quantity, presentation; absolutely amazing. The chef/owners should be extremely proud of what they have accomplished.

Service

Friendly, knowledgeable, well above average. The front of the house did a great job at preparing their servers to be both helpful and patient when explaining the menu.

Atmosphere and Ambience

Great music, excellent beer and wine selection, decent cocktail list.

Dining rooms lacks character. If you served that caliber of food in the ambiance of a place like nick’s on Millbury street you would have one of thee best restaurants in the county.

Do NOT, I repeat do NOT bring your vegan/peta holier than thou friend out for a night at Kummerspeck!

Price

On the higher end, but manageable. Not cheap enough to eat at everyday, but definitely in the normal rotation of places to go out to eat, when you want to spend money on a great meal.

Overall

Kummerspeck is going to face all the same growing pains every restaurant with an upscale ingredient list faces in Worcester. People will complain about the food being too expensive, only to mask their fear of trying something new and something they don’t understand. It will get mixed reviews by friends and socialites as they share a conversation over dinner and drinks competing about “the best meal they’ve had in awhile”.