Review of Alma Nove
By Rachel Lebeaux – Let’s get this out of the way: Don’t head to Alma Nove if your plan is to play paparazzi.
“It’s not run like a celebrity place. We don’t have Donnie and Mark’s photos on the wall,” said Paul Wahlberg, co-owner and executive chef at Alma Nove, referring to his acting- and music-minded brothers and co-owners, who also operate burger-and-boozy-shake joint Wahlburgers across the street. (But, to be fair, their photos are on the restaurant’s website.)
“We’re all about repeat business,” Wahlberg insisted. “That’s what makes the business go.”
It would be tough to argue Wahlberg’s dedication to his customers after a visit to Alma Nove, which opened 3 1/2 years ago in Hingham Shipyard. Named for the Wahlbergs’ mother, Alma, and her nine (nova in Italian) children, the kitchen’s attention to fresh seafood, classic Italian and Mediterranean preparations and an atmosphere that makes every visitor feel special needn’t fall back on celebrity trapping in order to draw crowds. Wahlberg, a strong front-of-house presence, is serious about his food and his diners’ experience. As he told us repeatedly, he’s cooking for his customers, not for himself.
Wahlberg has been cooking for 30 years, and he understands the need to balance culinary innovation against familiar, successful recipes. “A lot of the menu is based on classic dishes we put our influence on,” he said. As for other dishes, “They’ve been working for this long; we don’t need to fix them. If you feel like a chicken parmesan, I’ll make you a chicken parmesan” — even though it isn’t on the printed menu.
That commitment extends to creating an atmosphere, and a memory, for each customer, no matter his or her reason for visiting. “A special occasion can be parents having their only night out in six months. Or it could be an engagement dinner. My job is to make people happy,” Wahlberg said. “This is the business that’s chosen me, and I love it.”
The 143-seat dining room, a mixture of booths, tables and a long bar along the right side of the room, is ensconced in glass and topped by a dramatic rotunda with eye-catching glass orbs dangling from the ceiling. Outside, a sleek rectangular fire pit provides a cozy feel during the cold months; couches surround it when the weather gets warmer. When we visited, the restaurant was all dressed up for the holidays, decorated with festive garlands and lights, individual tables bathed in a candlelit glow.
Our cheerful waitress, Alanna, started our meal by whisking over a bread basket brimming with squishy sourdough studded with raisins, nuts and fresh cranberries, as well as a loaf with a hint of rosemary. Both were delicious, especially when dipped in smooth, fruity extra virgin olive oil.
Alma Nove treated us to tasting portions of several menu items, starting with two seared day-boat scallops atop a bed of spinach-laced risotto($29 as a full-sized entrée). The browned, caramelized scallops were succulent and tender, and the risotto was prepared perfectly, the velvety grains clumping just right. A rust-colored swoop of tomato brown butter was a unique, dreamy accompaniment.
The braised Kobe brisket ($14) is cooked for 16 hours in a brown-gravy braising jus until it’s as tender as your grandmother’s recipe — no knife needed to cut it cleanly. This is the very definition of a seasonal winter appetizer, hearty, satisfying and filling. On the side, there were balsamic-dressed greens, but it was the two small, truffle grilled cheese sandwiches that I found irresistible, the crisp, pressed ciabatta really rounding out the textures of the dish.
A special for the evening, shrimp wrapped in Japanese eggplant, had us recommending that it be added to the regular menu. Tucked within a small nest of arugula, two grilled jumbo shrimp were enveloped in the roasted eggplant, smothered in a reduction containing bacon, shallots and rosemary, and finished with garlic, parmesan cheese and a little lemon juice, with a jaunty tangle of greens balanced on top. From the composition to the flavors to the feel, this dish was stop-you-in-your-tracks delicious.
Alma Nove offers a range of pastas in half- and full portions. Our orecchiette pasta ($24 full portion, $10 tasting size) was tossed with braised greens, crumbled Italian sausage, a smattering of pine nuts and a shower of Romano cheese and parsley. It was nutty and earthy, the pine nuts adding an especially nice boost.
The homemade gnocchi ($24 full portion, $10 tasting size) were pillowy perfect, with a consistency that truly melted in our mouths. They were drenched in a sweet Madeira sauce with plump wild mushrooms, a healthy dose of slivered garlic and shaved truffle Pecorino cheese — and we could have easily consumed a full portion, and then some.From the entrees, we took two of Wahlberg’s recommendations. The wood-grilled swordfish ($31), a large, triangular steak, was a simple and welcome presentation of the firm fish, capped with a tomato confit and microgreens. The fish was couched in a mound of lobster mashed potatoes — not macaroni and cheese, as is common on so many Boston and seaside menus, but mashed potatoes. The combination was unusual, and the potatoes a bit basic, but we appreciated how much fresh lobster was in there.
The Long Island duck ($27), topped with slivers of carrot and jicama, gave us four slices of duck cooked medium, yielding a rosy interior and skin that was well seasoned, fatty and crisp. The duck was decadent, but the highlight, for me, was the accompanying gorgonzola risotto with port-fig reduction and whole figs tucked within. Pairing a cheese with bite with the sweetness of figs is one of those classic Italian preparations Wahlberg cited, and it was absolutely amazing in this case. Given his stated desire to give the customers what they want, I’d be tempted to return and ask to order this risotto as my entire meal.
From the desserts menu, we selected the rum cheesecake ($6.50), which climbed almost theatrically, starting with a round base of the rum-tinged cheesecake in a toasted-coconut crust. Atop that was a tuft of fresh whipped cream and an oval vanilla wafer cookie ascending skyward like a tower in the clouds. It reminded me of a volcano; if that were the case, then the lava might have been the very best part: warm butterscotch slathered over fresh-sliced bananas. This is definitely a dessert worth saving room for.
The same goes for the spiced chocolate cake. We asked for only a sliver, and received an egg-sized slice topped with vanilla ice cream from Nona’s Homemade in Hingham. The dense and fudgy cake bore a nice surprise: a subtle kick of cayenne, which really worked in contrast with the cold ice cream. The tiny accompanying cookie with chocolate-orange ganache and squiggle of candied orange were a nice touch, too.
We didn’t order drinks this evening, but Alma Nove has a full slate of beers, wine and cocktails at an affordable price point (Wahlberg proudly points out that this isn’t an establishment selling $1,200 bottles of wine). In fact, many customers sit at the bar, ordering drinks and even full meals for a casual evening out.
Some chefs take themselves a little too seriously, so Wahlberg’s approach is really refreshing. He’s a constant presence in the dining room, speaking with his customers, hearing their stories and learning what makes them tick. His kitchen pours all that attention and care into its food, and it shows. So pick a “special occasion,” no matter how mundane it might seem, and give Alma Nove a try.
Address: 22 Shipyard Drive, Hingham, MA 02043
Price: Appetizers $9-$16; entrees $24-$31; desserts $6.50
Hours: Mon-Wed: 11:30am-9:30pm; Thu-Sat: 11:30am -11pm; Sun: 11am-9:30pm
Features: Gluten-free and catering menus; outdoor fire pit, seaside setting, full bar.
Recommendations: Seared scallops, Kobe beef brisket, eggplant-wrapped shrimp, gnocchi, Long Island duck, grilled swordfish, rum cheesecake
Parking: street parking and parking lots
Payment Options: Major credit cards
Photos courtesy of Rachel Lebeaux for TableCritic Inc.
Tagged Alma Nove, bar, braised Kobe Brisket, day-boat scallops, eggplant-wrapped shrimp, Executive Chef Paul Wahlberg, fire pit, Hingham, Hingham Shipyard, homemade gnocchi, Japanese eggplant, Long Island duck, orecchiette pasta, Rachel Lebeaux, restaurant, Restaurant Review, risotto, rum cheesecake, shrimp, spiced chocolate cake, TableCritic Inc, tasting menu, wine, wood-grilled swordfish