On August 3, Michael Pagliarini let the world into his newest Cambridge restaurant, Moëca. The sister restaurant to Pagliarini’s ritzy Italian restaurant Giulia, he let fans know his plans to open a neighborhood restaurant back in January. The chef and owner says the first week has been a major success. “It’s exhilarating,” Pagliarini says. “We jumped into the chaos, the unknown, but we’ve been training for months, some of us for years. But there’s nothing like opening those doors.”
Pagliarini says the first night had about 60 covers. The bar — an addition to the restaurant space that existed at 1 Shepherd Street while it was Chez Henri and other restaurants over the years — saw fans return instantly. “They were the hottest 12 seats in the restaurant,” Pagliarini says by phone, while simultaneously making pasta inside his decade-old restaurant mainstay, Giulia.
The open kitchen, done in an Italian oceanic tile that Pagliarini says is meant to evoke the deep blacks and blue “churning waters” of the Atlantic, invites folks in from even the sidewalk where people peeked in for months before the opening. The food, of course, brings customers in, too. The wild striped bass ceviche with stone fruit (lacto fermented into a broth) with a squid ink tapioca thickened and fried into a “chicharron” was on just about every table. The unicorn oysters, with a rhubarb and lime granita, featured in the restaurant’s opening announcement, look like tiny dollops of pink shaved ice. The yellowfin tuna comes with shaved, air-dried beef — a product of an almost exclusive relationship with a farmer in Chelsea, Vermont — serves as a richer play on bonito flake.
It’s worth noting that pastry chef Renae Connolly is among Boston’s upper echelon of dessert wizards. The riff on stracciatella, Italian gelato with tempered shards of chocolate, makes for a necessary tonic to the hot summer weather. “She makes the best ice creams I’ve ever had,” Pagliarini says. “The desserts are whimsical, and fun, and there is just no excuse to have two scoops on the table at the end of the night.” The expertise through the location runs deep on the front of house side, too. General manager Lauren Faria was at Benedetto for years.
The first four nights at Moëca were fully booked. According to the chef, people remarked on the physical transformation of the room — the personality and texture of the new space, designed by local firm Wolf In Sheep. Pagliarini’s wood-working friend did a lot of the custom pieces in the new restaurant, too, including three substantial walnut arches that constitute the backbar. “A lot of people are excited,” Pagliarini says. “We want to do right by our most important customers, our neighbors.”