Pity poor Vera. This new, casually upscale Italian eatery is run by folks with impressive Boston and New York credentials and has an ideal location, smack on Market Square in downtown Newburyport.
But starting a new restaurant in this environment? A case could be made that the restaurant/hospitality industry has been devastated by COVID-19 more than any other.
On the other hand … maybe save that pity and instead make arrangements to visit as soon as your personal circumstances allow. In a seaside city known for its impressive slew of good restaurants, Vera is already near the top of that list.
There is plenty of outdoor dining at Vera, in front, on the side, and even in the back of the place — all good people-watching locations. My wife and I were happy to take advantage of that seating during a spate of weird but welcome 70-degree days in November.
Vera’s interior is a single room dominated by a central bar. It’s cozy — not always a welcome attribute these days. But bar seating was limited and plexiglass dividers had been set up as barriers between many of the tables.
The menu offers six entrees — halibut ($36), chicken ($26), a bone-in pork chop ($29), the house burger ($20), an 8-ounce filet mignon ($44), and a 12-ounce rib-eye ($42) — in addition to pastas and pizzas.
We suspected we were in for a good night when both starters earned high marks. The $18 polipetti (grilled baby octopus) was prepared well and served with tomatoes, fingerling potatoes, a smart aioli, and fennel pollen. It made me consider never again ordering simple fried calamari.
The burrata ($15) was a visually pleasing dish: little prosciutto di parma tents served with the rich, creamy Italian cheese, all accented with some basil oil and sea salt.
Maybe it’s because we were so, uh, “restaurant starved,” but the Bolognese ($18/$24) featured a tagliatelle in a richly herbed meat sauce that seemed absolutely silky — we ate slowly to savor the experience.
Ordering the rib-eye inspired a quick travel flashback. Years ago, my wife and I were dining out in the Tuscan town of Montecatini, and we noticed patrons at a nearby table enjoying steaks that appeared to be straight out of a Flintstones cartoon — huge cuts that seemed beyond anything a cow or bull could offer. And they were so rare it would not have surprised me if the kitchen staff had just waved them over the grill before serving.
I joked with my waiter, who was Italian, that though I know I should order the rib-eye rare, I opted for medium rare … the American version of medium rare. He laughed and replied, “There is nothing wrong with ordering a rare steak.”
That’s a conversation for another day.
It’s reasonable to expect a $42 steak to be so good that it all but takes you to another place when you taste it. The beef arrived presliced and was medium-rare perfection. I can’t recall the last time I thought of a steak as almost buttery, but this one qualified. Temperature correct and packed with flavor, it was a terrific entree, served with some arugula and tomato.
Our desserts, a panna cotta ($9) and chocolate crema ($9), were the “disappointments” of the evening; both were quite good, but they didn’t quite match the lofty standards of everything else.
Though we were told they were understaffed that night, no fewer than four people visited our table to make sure we were happy during the course of our delightful dinner.
We were. Very. Serving us a memorable dinner under the daunting circumstances most restaurants are facing these days was no small feat. I’m already looking forward to visiting Vera again, when the weather … or vaccines … cooperate.
Tuesday-Thursday, 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Friday and Saturday, 4 p.m. to 10 p.m.