Papa Razzi Metro

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I'm sorry to say that Papa Razzi Metro closed in October 2016.

If you’re a regular visitor to this space, you’ve probably noticed that I avoid writing about chain restaurants. That’s not to say that I never go to a chain restaurant, or that I always have a subpar experience when I do. But very rarely do I have an excellent experience at one. And that’s no surprise, because most chains aren’t striving for excellence – their goal is predictability. The corporate muckety-mucks of chain restaurants want to ensure that your favorite meal or beverage is available every time you come in, that it’s just as you remember it, and that if you’re ever visiting another restaurant in the chain, you can count on finding it there, as well. All of that would be well and good if it didn’t so frequently translate into mediocrity. But that’s inevitable when you’re offering a menu with the broadest possible appeal and trying to ensure an identical dining experience in dozens or even hundreds of restaurants. There’s little room for spontaneity or improvisation. Market data is privileged over innovation or fresh ideas, and individual creativity takes a back seat to heavily vetted research.

Applying those same principles to a beverage program seems incredibly dull – particularly in an age when cocktails have enjoyed such a spectacular renaissance. And what I find even more satisfying than a well-crafted drink is the experience that goes along with it. I love it when a bartender introduces me to a new spirit or brand, something they’re personally excited about. I appreciate the opportunity to learn why a particular cocktail tastes the way it does. I especially enjoy feeling like a bartender is genuinely invested in what they’re doing – knowledgeable of their craft, enthusiastic about their drinks, and interested in making sure I am, too.

That’s simply not a level of engagement I expect to find at the bar of a chain restaurant. And thus it was with an open mind but a hearty sense of skepticism that I agreed to write about Papa Razzi Metro.

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Papa Razzi is a familiar name to many New Englanders. The regional chain has been offering decent Italian fare since 1989 in an atmosphere that’s upscale but affordable. But when the Rhode Island-based Newport Restaurant Group took over a few years ago, they decided it was time to refresh the Papa Razzi brand – a new food menu and beverage program, a whole new look, and the addition of “Metro” to the name.

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Burlington’s Papa Razzi Metro is the first of the chain to undergo a complete renovation. The appearance is more modern and sleek, with a long, curvy marble bar and red leather sofas, but also aims for a traditional look with its hardwood floor and old-school lamps along the bar.

But what might be more jarring to longtime Papa Razzi diners is the revamped menu. Heavy dishes in red sauce are scaled back in favor of small plates designed for sharing. Certified Neapolitan pizzas are made in an oven shipped over from Italy that reaches a temperature of 900 degrees and cooks the pizza in a mere 90 seconds.

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Traditional favorites like calamari are jazzed up with Maine shrimp misto, flash-fried zucchini, and a spicy peppadew aioli.

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Fall-apart tender and bursting with flavor, beef and sausage meatballs are elegantly presented with slices of grilled bread.

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A selection of salumi boards is available, like this one featuring speck, gorgonzola, apricot jam, and almonds.

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Vestiges of the previous menu remain, but Papa Razzi’s objective seems clear – appeal to a younger generation of diners, particularly those moving from the city to the suburbs, and push longtime customers out of their comfort zone without completely alienating them.

And that brings us to the beverage program, which, along with the menu and the space, got a makeover of its own. While wine may be the traditional accompaniment to an Italian meal, Papa Razzi Metro now offers a menu of craft cocktails. On the surface, that might look like a typical chain move – chasing a trend, long after it’s become one, and adapting it for a suburban audience. But a conversation with beverage director Shawn Westhoven convinced me otherwise.

“I want nothing to do with being the beverage director of a chain,” he says, which may seem like a curious remark coming from someone who is exactly that. But as Shawn explains how a chain beverage program is run, and how Papa Razzi runs theirs, it becomes clear that Newport Restaurant Group wisely gave him latitude to create a bar with an independent spirit that doesn’t slavishly adhere to the conventional best practices of a chain restaurant.

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“We go the opposite way from a chain,” he says of Papa Razzi’s evolving beverage program. “The way that a chain has to make decisions, they look at data, and they see what’s trending; and then that’s what they do, because they’re trying to appeal to what guests are asking for. They have to try to line up what’s in their inventory with what the most number of people are going to want. And I want to have the stuff that I want to have.”

What Shawn wants most of all is for customers to have an experience at Papa Razzi bar that they won’t have at another chain restaurant. Indeed, many of the trappings of a chain cocktail menu are absent. In place of cheap, processed mixers are fresh juices and house-made syrups. Where you’d ordinarily see 15 bottles of artificially flavored vodka, you’ll find small-batch spirits from local producers like GrandTen, Bully Boy, and Privateer. And instead of faux martinis and sweet, colorful drinks, the cocktail list is populated with classics and originals, many featuring herbal liqeurs like amaros and vermouths.

The Negroni, made with GrandTen Wireworks gin, Campari, and Carpono Antico vermouth, is a true standout.

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“We dial back the Campari, which is the bitter, quite a bit, and ratchet it up with the vermouth, which is the sweet,” Shawn explains. “A classic Negroni is much more bitter. But the gin is so good, we can’t have too much Campari in there.” The result is an approachable Negroni for someone who’s new to the drink, which can be an acquired taste.

The Negroni’s predecessor, the Americano, is crisp and bitter, combining Contratto Americano vermouth, Campari, and soda.

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For those who aren’t ready for a bitter cocktail, the Italian Greyhound is made with Bully Boy vodka and freshly squeezed grapefruit. I’ve always found the Greyhound to be a fairly boring drink, but the fresh grapefruit elevates Papa Razzi’s version.

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So how do customers in a suburban market respond cocktails like that? “With hesitation,” Shawn admits. “Until you get it in their hands.”

The best way to get an unfamiliar drink into a customer’s hands is to have bartenders who are talented, engaged, and willing to encourage their guests to branch out a bit. At Papa Razzi, that starts with inviting bartenders to contribute to the cocktail program. Half of the drink list is devoted to rotating cocktails that are devised by bartenders throughout the chain. Several times a year, Shawn sends out an email that gives the bar staff some general parameters to follow – seasonal ingredients to consider, trends to follow or avoid, spirits he wants customers to start drinking – and gets back a hundred or so recipes that he narrows down.

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“I don’t have a team of hotshot bartenders like an independent place from Cambridge would have,” he acknowledges. “But we have people who have an interest in this, and they’re willing to work at it; I want to foster that.”

By encouraging staff to contribute drink ideas, the bartenders get acquainted with different products and styles, gain a better understanding of how to create a balanced drink, and have a personal stake in the menu.

The Goliardico, made with Hendrick’s gin, elderflower liqueur, and fresh grapefruit juice, is one contribution. The floral elderflower is a natural companion to Hendrick’s, with its notes of cucumber and rose petals, and the fresh grapefruit adds a vibrant, sour punch.

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The Tempo Triplo is another. Combining three vermouths and orange bitters, it demonstrates Shawn’s desire to get his staff familiar with a particular spirit and then introduce it to customers. “The reason for this cocktail is to get our guests to taste and enjoy vermouth,” he says. “Most people want to leave vermouth out of the drink; they have this idea that it’s a bad thing. But they’re delicious. You can have a cocktail made just with vermouths and it’s awesome.”

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It may take patience and persistence, but it’s an approach that’s bearing fruit. One of Shawn’s additions to the beverage program is a selection of four Italian craft beers, each of which sells for about $9. That’s a lot to pay for a beer, even in the city; but remarkably, the four beers (together) are now outselling Bud Light.

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As our conversation winds down, we turn to the after-dinner drinks, where one of Italy’s most popular liqueurs awaits. In principle, limoncello is fairly simple – lemon zest is steeped in a neutral spirit that draws out the oils, and the resulting liquid is mixed with simple syrup. But it’s notoriously difficult to perfect, and Shawn’s insistence on offering a house-made version led him to months of experimentation, with discouraging results. Finally he asked whether anyone at Papa Razzi knew of a good recipe, and a general manager from the Burlington restaurant had one from about 8 years prior. It worked like a charm. Made with organic lemons, this vibrant house limoncello practically leaps from the glass, like someone squeezing a lemon right in front of you.

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Also available is an unusual variation – “figcello” follows a similar formula but uses figs instead of lemons. It wasn’t available the night I was there, so I asked Shawn to recommend a different dessert cocktail. His suggestion caught me off-guard: the Café Mocha Menta Panna is hot chocolate with Fernet Branca and mint cream. I was wary; I’m not a big fan of Fernet, nor do I ordinarily drink hot chocolate on a broiling July night.

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But I trusted my host and was glad I did. Neither too bitter nor too sweet, this satisfying drink tasted like a cup of minty dark chocolate. And Shawn seemed genuinely pleased to note that he’d managed to push me out of my comfort zone – which he tries to do with so many customers.

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“No one’s ever going to walk in here and ask for an amaro,” Shawn acknowledges. “But I say, let’s put some amaros on the menu and introduce them to the guests.”

Just letting people know they’re available – and if necessary, explaining what they are – is a start.

“We’re always trying to find ways to say, 'your life is pretty great: you came into Papa Razzi and you know you’re going to have great Italian food, but I’m going to give you one thing tonight that’s going to be special. It’s going to be this craft beer, this vermouth cocktail, whatever'; and people love that. And I love it,” he says.

“And that’s how I try to keep us separated from the idea of a chain restaurant.”

Address: 2 Wall Street, Burlington

Website:http://paparazzimetro.com/

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