50 Massachusetts Avenue, Lunenburg

(978) 696-3238

Bernard Whitemore

Totally unfamiliar with Lunenburg, I typed the address for La Balena into my phone and, after proceeding north on Rt 190, we were led on a tour that took us through myriad intersections and what soon became an indistinct blur of faded commercial strips and residential neighborhoods. 

I cautioned myself to resist forming a bad first impression of the town; after all, what would someone think of Worcester if their introductory tour consisted of a drive down Mill Street through Webster Square and out to the cemeteries? Dismal.

Arriving at La Balena was like encountering an oasis after languishing in Death Valley. Bright and cheery, with simple decoration on clean white walls, we were welcomed and promptly shown to a table in one of their several dining areas. 

It was early and the room was still empty, so I felt free to wander. Looking out a window I saw an abandoned patio with plenty of seating and a dry fieldstone waterfall. Silent for now, but with the return of warm weather it will be open soon. Back inside, Good Vibrations led a soundtrack of classic rock standards tuned so low as to be barely audible.

La Balena’s menu featured wide-ranging, classical Italian cuisine, with a scattering of surprises. Such as the Butter Board appetizer that piqued my curiosity with its nuts, edible flowers, greens and, I assume, shmear of butter. It sounded intriguing in a photogenic way, but my dining companion coaxed me back from the wild side, opting for Fried Calamari, in this case tossed with hot peppers.

LB’s calamari were standard-issue rings and tentacles fried light golden brown. Thin slices of hot pepper were also breaded and fried. If someone in the party was averse to spicy, this app would work just fine; the heat of the peppers didn’t permeate the calamari; somehow both flavors coexisted in harmony. Of special note, though, was the marinara sauce, warm and chunky with rich tomato flavor. Perfect when dabbed on LB’s crusty-thick slices of yeasty Italian bread.

Once a common feature, the inclusion of salad with entrées has become an unusual treat. Thus, it was a pleasant surprise when our server asked our preference, House or Caesar salad? We opted for Caesar and were delighted with its crunchy greens topped with croutons and parmesan shavings. The dressing was just a bit tart and so creamy it coated each leaf.

My entrée choice had wandered several times before making a final decision. Cioppino? Little neck clams Fra Diavolo? Then I came to Squid Ink Linguine and my decision was made. 

Squid ink! I haven’t noticed it on a menu in ages. Nostalgia aside, it was a great choice. The bowl of thin black noodles looked like a nest of seaweed strewn with tender scallops and blistered cherry tomatoes; its steam breathed a delicate perfume of seafood and was drenched in a light lemony sauce studded with bits of mild garlic. It was an ideal dish for the warm weather ahead and I matched it with a glass of Masianco Pinot Grigio. The crisp citrus flavor would be a refreshing counterpoint to any seafood dish.

Veal Saltimbocca, my companion’s entrée, arrived in two parts. At center, a wide bowl of pappardelle; extra-thick wide noodles dusted with chopped parsley soaked in sumptuous marsala sauce. Alongside it was placed a butter dish bearing two veal cutlets that had been lightly coated and pan-fried.

Was he supposed to slide the veal over the pasta? We didn’t ask. The marsala sauce was so immensely rich, though, that he was happy to keep them separated. Of the veal, he proclaimed, ‘Some of the best I’ve had! Juicy-moist and tender. Cooked perfectly!’ 

Technically faithful to the saltimbocca recipe, the veal was dabbed with small strips of prosciutto. However, we were unable to detect fresh sage. Chefs everywhere take liberties with this classic dish. What I look for is the fragrance of sage and strips of crispy prosciutto lining the veal. Then, just enough wine to deglaze the tasty brown bits from the pan is all this elegant dish requires.

After being welcomed by such friendly people and having enjoyed delicious Italian cuisine, my impression of Lunenburg was much elevated. And our return home from La Balena Ristorante was a cinch. We just rocked on to Electric Avenue.