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Small Plates, Big Ambitions 

Grotto Wine Bar Livens Up Shaker Square

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Until fairly recently, the term "wine bar" was reserved for establishments that placed drink in higher regard than food. Visitors to these casual haunts expected to find a great selection of wines by the glass and bottle. What they didn't demand was first-rate food. Historically, folks went to a wine bar for sips and nibbles, not a full-on feast.

These days, the line between enoteca and bona fide restaurant is inexorably blurred, rendering most distinctions obsolete. Grotto Wine Bar, a gorgeous new spot at Shaker Square, is a prime example. While the menu does feature a hefty assemblage of wine and small plates, it also includes soups, salads, entrées, desserts, even nightly specials.

Notwithstanding the nomenclature, Grotto is a fantastic addition to the once-sleepy northwest quadrant of Shaker Square. It boasts a large bar and late last call, making it one of the few nightlife options in the immediate vicinity. And despite some bothersome flaws, the restaurant deserves the positive attention it has been receiving since opening in mid-January.

With Lago and Gusto under its collective belt, the Salerno Restaurant Group has considerable experience when it comes to putting together a quality restaurant. Grotto, which consumed two vacant Shaker Square storefronts, possesses old-world drama without the faintest whiff of gaudiness. Guests enter a soaring front room dominated by an impressive chandelier. To the right is the bar and a 1,000-bottle glass-encased wine cellar. To the rear, a flickering gas hearth provides ambiance and warmth. Textural finishes include stacked-stone pillars, sweeping brick archways and dark-wood paneling.

In their promotional material, the Salernos promised "Italian tapas-style dishes at very reasonable prices." Well, they got it half right. Grotto's menu lists nearly a dozen small-plate options, and many are unequivocally delectable. But at prices that largely fall in the $12-14 range, reasonable is not quite the word that comes to mind. Grotto would do well to add some more affordable and less ambitious starters.

One starter that is both delicious and fairly priced is the polpette ($10). Three large, airy meatballs arrive nestled in marinara, topped with cheese and sided by good Italian bread. While I'd love to see more variety, the three-meat, three-cheese antipasto platter ($14) proves an enjoyable sidekick to a glass of wine.

Grotto's arancini ($12) are some of the best I've eaten. Slice into the crisp-fried, honey-brown rice balls and shrimp tumbles out into the saffron cream sauce. Equally impressive are the pistachio-crusted scallops ($12), a pair of perfectly cooked sea scallops drizzled with a tropical pomegranate glaze. Though the accompanying sesame-scented Asian slaw is anything but Italian wine-friendly, we find little fault with our duo of hefty grilled prawns ($10).

With everybody and their sister baking superlative thin-crust pizzas these days, perhaps we've grown a bit spoiled, but Grotto's pies fail to make a lasting impression. More doughy than crusty, the diminutive six-inch Gianni ($10) is a bit bland, and the pale winter tomatoes don't help matters much. On the other hand, Grotto's chicken roulade entrée ($12) is a revelation. Sliced into bite-size wheels like a sushi roll, the colorful twirls of chicken, spinach and cheese turn out to be the surprise hit of the night. The only complaint lamb chop fans likely will have with the dish served here is the portion size, with three wafer-thin chops running $16.

It is precisely these ups and downs that stand in the way of Grotto earning the highest marks. An exceptional arugula salad ($8) with fennel and orange is followed by a side of "creamy polenta" ($6) that is anything but creamy. With an odd fluffy-grainy texture, the polenta is closer to couscous than porridge. A gnocchi entree ($14) wows us with oodles of lush lobster meat in a spicy-creamy truffle sauce; sadly, the dumplings are dense and leaden. Grotto's hearty wild boar meat sauce is just the ticket on a brisk winter night. Too bad the overcooked tagliatelle ($14) is too limp to support it. I'll order rabbit in a hop, but when I saw what amounted to three ounces of meat for $19, I just about leapt from my chair.

Expectedly, Grotto's wine list is broad, deep and chock full of quality labels from the old world and new. There are more than two dozen wines by the glass and hundreds more by the bottle, with considerable attention paid to California and Italy.

Veteran GM Mike Tomaseli runs a tight ship, and apart from one very slow evening, service has been pleasant and efficient. Already under construction, an attractive sidewalk patio will undoubtedly become one of the nicest places to enjoy an alfresco drink come summer.

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