Bernard Whitmore 

Cristina’s Restaurant
314 Central Street, Leominster
Phone: (978) 534-0849

Leominster’s Central Street is one of those strips you head to when you need low-cost services to keep an aging car on the road, get a haircut or tattoo while your clothes are dry-cleaned. Every town has one, you become accustomed to their state of worn out and run down utility. Our drive past all this had subconsciously calibrated my expectations downward by the time I pulled into Cristina’s parking lot.

But something remarkable happened when we were led to our table in Cristina’s dining room. A scan of the room revealed clean lines, simple décor and a light and airy space sweeping up to the high central ceiling. To further promote a sense of relaxing oasis, the wall of street-facing windows were sealed tight by horizontal blinds that blocked any remaining reminder of the outside world.

Cristina’s cuisine is classic Italian in each of the customary menu categories, Pasta, Chicken, Veal and Seafood. Our waiter greeted us with a small oval loaf of warm crusty bread and olive oil infused with red pepper flakes, bits of garlic, oregano and coarse salt.

Simply to taste that dipping oil was to anticipate flavorful food to come. Warm yeasty bread dipped into a pool of spicy garlicky goodness! Garlic so pure and pungent it altered my body chemistry for days. This concentration of flavor is a rare encounter.

Stuffed Mushrooms

Our appetizer choices narrowed down to a few. Anancini? Fried Goat Cheese? The waiter tipped the scales when she informed us the Stuffed Mushrooms were an order of six or eight; quite shareable. On presentation, the portion was an even ten. Each mushroom cap was filled with a large dollop of stuffing and topped with melty mild cheese; all of it slathered with thick brown demiglace sauce. 

I soon found myself slogging through these mushrooms, particularly the stuffing. The menu billed it as sausage stuffing, but I struggled to taste much more than breadcrumbs. To be more successful this dish needed fewer mushrooms, more sausage meat and a flash of flavor to spark up the demiglace.

Linguine with Clams

Things came back to live with our entrées. Mine, Linguine with Clams, was a big bowl of al-dente linguine swimming in marinara sauce crammed with big chunks of clams, its flavor accented with red pepper flakes. In this case the chef successfully layered flavors and achieved a harmony that showcased the delicate clam flavor. The portion was so large I took a box of it home.

Veal Parmigiana with Rigatoni

On the other side of the table my friend was having a pasta revelation. He’d ordered Veal Parmigiana with rigatoni. On presentation, he immediately realized his quest for the perfect rigatoni was within reach. Cristina’s rigatonis were chunky-wide and long and grooved with deep lines that are perfect for holding sauce. Far superior to all others, he had to know who they were procured from.

“Go back to the kitchen and ask the chef!” I urged.

Overhearing this, our waiter happened to be just as enthusiastic about them. So she went to the chef to ask. On return, she revealed, “They come in a blue box… de-cee something?” she offered.

“De Cecco?” I offered. “That’s it!” And, with that, the quest was over. 

But how about the veal parm? “Delicious… generous portion… tender and juicy. Plus, the sauce, while not as good as my own gravy, is fresh and flavorful.”

Leominster has long been a destination for rock-solid Italian cuisine. Monty’s Garden Restaurant was a hugely popular destination for decades till it closed in 2007. Il Camino is still going strong and famous for their big bowls of pasta. Now Cristina’s is on our radar, especially with the lure of their Baked Rigatoni with Sausage. A return visit is assured.