The special cran-apple chutney panini at the sidewalk table at Crostini.
There are food-criticism words that get lampooned from time to time. Okay, always. Among them: "meltingly tender," "pillowy," "decadent." I'm sure you all have your fingernails-on-a-blackboard, please-do-not-write-this-ever-again-in-your-newspaper non-favorites. I understand. I don't like them either.
I was thinking about overall compliments that could honestly be given to a likeable restaurant, and one I finally came up with was, "I wish this place were closer to my house."
That's how I feel about Crostini, the sandwich shop that, since June, has occupied the space formerly occupied by a Milio's, and then the short-lived Nonna Rita's Empanadas, on North Street at East Johnson. (Got that? It's near Dexter's Pub in the little retail block known as Colonial Corners, between the Emerson East and Eken Park neighborhoods.) If Crostini were a little closer to my house, I'd be dropping by all the time. It's not a special-occasion restaurant. It's more of an I-don't-want-to-cook-tonight place, with takeout and delivery (within about five miles), as well as a table and a couple of benches outside for good-weather sidewalk dining. Yes, it's a sandwich shop, but with more personal attention to your food than you'll get from a chain.
Crostini has some standouts.
First, the Italian beef. Since "meltingly tender" and "pillowy" are probably both out, I'll take a stab at it this way: It's as if a croissant were made out of thin slices of meat -- it's just that tender. The spicy giardinara gave the sandwich a kick without overwhelming the flavor of the beef, and there was a modest soak of juice into the bread, in ratios just about perfect. One of the best Italian beefs I've tried in town.
Next, meatballs. Homemade. And quite fine (in texture and in flavor), whether served with spaghetti or in a sub. I first had them in a panini, with a little marinara, mozzarella and parmesan -- a solid bargain at $6. But meatballs just may work better in a sub format, period, than smooshed into a grilled bread sandwich.
Crostini also serves a small selection of pasta dishes, at least two of which I'd order for a crowd. The spaghetti and meatballs, as mentioned, works. But I'd also go for the Tex-Mex pasta, described as "penne pasta topped with homemade Tex-Mex chili" -- which it is, but with a "chili" that's more based on the American ground beef taco, with a decent hit of cilantro, and not too much tomato, served over perfectly cooked penne. It's much more than just "chili on pasta."
Less successful were a couple of the other pastas. The pesto pasta lacked any discernible basil flavor, and the cherry tomatoes and artichoke hearts that were supposed to top it were too sparse to make up the difference. And it was too greasy. The classic Alfredo with chicken also ended up greasier than it was creamy. I'd stick with the tomato-based sauces.
Another step in the wrong direction was the Philly cheesesteak. This was puzzling, since as a concept it's not that different from an Italian beef, but in all the ways that the Italian was oh-so-right, the cheesesteak was wrong. The peppers were cut too large and were too few; the cheese was scanty; the beef had been over-grilled; and there was an overpowering application of oregano.
The panini are quite good, ranging from the standard ham and Swiss to a bulging vegetarian version with sauteed peppers, artichoke hearts, spinach and other fresh vegetables as available. I tend to think a little less is more when it comes to fillings in panini, but some inventions are noteworthy: A recent cran-apple chutney with turkey, arugula, red onion and havarti special was a good combo to arrive as a panini.
Panini are available gluten-free. There are also wraps and regular deli-style sandwiches dressed up with tomato, lettuce and mayo. Daily soups are homemade.
One thing you will not find at Crostini is crostini. There are no little appetizer toasts. Crostini has more of a hearty Middle American approach to its Italian-flavored fare; serving sizes are generous, while prices are modest.