The Boot needs to tighten its execution, but you can cobble together a fine meal of Italian basics | First Bite | Indy Week

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The Boot needs to tighten its execution, but you can cobble together a fine meal of Italian basics

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If you were hoping for an S&M boutique, you're out of luck. The Boot is a trattoria presumably named for the leggy geography of Italy.

Located amid a cluster of restaurants—Nana's, NanaTaco, The Original Q Shack, Thai Cafe—at the resurgent eastern end of University Drive in Durham, The Boot offers an uneven but generally appealing array of Italian basics at soup-and-sandwich prices.

Panciuto and Pizzeria Toro serve better Italian food, but come back to haunt one's credit card statement. With both lunch and dinner entrees averaging about $11, The Boot is a welcome alternative to the comparably priced chain fare that turns nearby 15-501 into such a dismal buffet.

The Boot is itself boot-like: an "L" shaped space whose longer axis stretches 30 yards. The ceiling is high, the walls are brick and the decor is minimal. Massive plank tables that provide vast quantities of family-style seating are the room's hallmark. If the gods of Valhalla descend on Durham for a bite, these tables will easily withstand the pounding of their tankards.

Perplexing pastrami sandwich aside, The Boot sticks to the eternal verities of Little Italy. There is minestrone, garlic bread, steamed mussels, fried calamari, spaghetti with local meatballs, chicken Parmesan, eggplant Parmesan and linguini with clam sauce. Subtly lacking are the superb artisanal ingredients and indefinable slow-food soulfulness that transfigure this peasant food in the Northeastern enclaves where it's still served at the highest level.

Even so, a shrewd cherry-picker can construct a fine meal. Said diner might start with mussels, fennel and pancetta in an assertive white wine sauce, and follow with orecchiette tossed with a feisty combination of sausage, broccoli rabe, chili flakes and pecorino. And for dessert—what else?—tiramisu. This version—an eggy, runny and raffishly boozy parfait—may be the area's best. If the goal is to diminish the efficiency of one's work afternoon, this three-course meal will do the trick.

An equally fine two-course meal might begin with farfalle, prosciutto and peas in a surf-green pea purée and then proceed to the melting pistachio-topped panna cotta or the perfectly crisp cannoli filled with grassy, chocolate-inflected ricotta (a very far cry from the sugary xanthum-gum paste that often winds up in cannoli). The cheesecake drizzled with cherry-chianti syrup is solid, but it can't compete with the cannoli. Coffee and mid-afternoon cannoli—as on Boston's Hanover Street—is a savvy approach to the Boot.

The Boot's Italian sandwich—ciabatta stuffed with capicola, mortadella, fennel and provolone—may be the best quick nosh in the vicinity. With the Q Shack visible through the Boot's front window, this is no small claim. This sandwich tastes so right it's hard to believe it wasn't rudely thrust at you over the counter of a New Jersey deli.

At the same time, it's possible—at least circa mid-December—to go astray. Let's ponder an alternate menu path: fried calamari, chicken parm, hazelnut torte. The calamari is a touch too salty and tends to exfoliate its fry-coating, leaving a mound of sloughed starch in its wake. Rather than being cut thin and pounded thinner, the chicken breast is served plumpish. This invites dryness as well as squanders potential surface area to be crisped and blanketed with blistered mozzarella. The torte is a massive wedge of dry, crumbly brownie, with hazelnut discernible only as a faint nutty granularity. At a PTA bake sale, it would attract little notice.

If the Italian sandwich is fastidiously correct, the eggplant parm is insouciantly incorrect. Instead of layered squares cut from a baked casserole, the Boot serves thick coins of flour-dredged, deep-fried eggplant topped with melted mozzarella and arranged on a bed of marinara. It's not bad, but it does flout the old rule about not fixing stuff that ain't broke. The ravioli with butternut squash and sage-infused brown butter simply needs work. The pasta is sodden and the dish tends to clump.

My major qualm is the marina, which reappears throughout the menu, compromising even The Boot's fine meatballs. It has a shrill acidity and watery chunkiness, where the classic marinaras of Boston's North End and New Haven's Wooster Square have a mellow, meat-infused depth. I'm puzzled that marinara so often goes wrong, even at good restaurants, when a passable marinara is as simple as roughly blending a can of Muir Glen Organic Whole Peeled Tomatoes (victor in a 15-brand taste test I once conducted) and seasoning with olive oil, oregano and salt. A pork bone helps, as does a pat of butter for richness and sheen.

Co-owner Andy Magowan has already made good as the owner of Durham's Geer Street Garden. I'm expecting this wily veteran to tighten The Boot's laces and make good once again.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Fit's a little loose."

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