Veranda Restaurant & Wine Bar is great news for Fitchburg, a city without a lot of dining options.
Not only is it a great revival of a space that once housed Tomas Ballesta's unequalled La Paella restaurant, it's also a resurrection of what was best about the erstwhile Cafe Continental Downtown.
The name plays up the restaurant's namesake feature, its lovely patio setting, which was the place to be on a recent weeknight, a slight chill to the air, but no sign of any flies or mosquitoes.
Nick Schiavo, who owns the restaurant with his mother, Rose Marie, and his wife, Stephanie, said most of the remodeling was done in the lounge area, which has four beautiful semi-circular booths.
Veranda has four rooms, including the bar area, and seats 150 inside, 125 outside.
"It's a bit bigger than the other place," Schiavo said in understatement, referencing Cafe Continental, the well-regarded restaurant he ran with his mom and dad, the late Tony Schiavo, on King Street from 1998 to 2010.
The menu has a lot of variety, made up of almost two dozen small plates, as well as salads, oysters, flatbreads and desserts.
The bruschetta ($11) gets top billing, and for good reason. There are an amazing eight varieties, each one sounding better than the next. Best is that you can mix and match, choosing four different ones if you so wish.
From our sampling, the standouts were the beef tenderloin with creamy boursin cheese and pickled red onion; and the smoked salmon with dill cream cheese, onions and capers. The summer squash with bacon and gorgonzola; and the caponata with eggplant, tomatoes, capers, and pine nuts in a sweet and sour sauce, were good efforts. They just paled in comparison to the other two.
Also outstanding was the plump crab cake ($10), served with a delicious remoulade laid out artfully on the plate. Crab cakes simply don't get any better. There was no filler here. It came with a pile of arugula, which if it had any dressing was hard to detect.
Rose Marie's original spiedini ($14) is a wise holdover from the Continental days. Tender sirloin was rolled with tomato sauce, Romano cheese and herbs and then breaded and baked. The result was four tater tot-shaped rolls perfect for dipping in the excellent house tomato sauce. Another dipping sauce, olive oil with lemon and herbs, was ineffectual and unnecessary.
The tempura-battered jalapenos ($12) were also one-of-a-kind, flayed open and stuffed with fresh and spicy sashimi tuna and cream cheese. They were topped with habanero tobiko eggs.
"This is a brilliant creation," said my companion after initially getting bowled over by the heat. They were served on a bed of greens that, again, we would have eaten had they been properly dressed. It seemed a waste to treat it like a garnish.
The grilled shiitake pasta ($10) with Japanese somen noodles and sesame oil, was a winner for the meaty, well-marinated mushrooms, but the room temperature noodles were mostly dull and seemed not to know if they wanted to be served hot or cold.
The meal ended on a high note. The caramel chocolate ice cream pie ($7) was frozen solid at first, hard to get a spoon in (a fork might have worked better). But once it thawed a bit, it was first-rate. Not as rich as pie and more exciting than ice cream. It was unique.
Unique was the word that came up again and again at Veranda. It's about time Fitchburg had something of this quality. Veranda is doing La Paella's legacy proud. Not to mention Cafe Continental's. Somewhere Tony Schiavo is smiling.