Taranta Cucina Meridionale is a restaurant located in the heart of Boston’s Little Italy, North End…with a secret. It is not just another Italian joint, specializing in red sauce or clams sauce or cannolis. It is a rare and unique dining establishment. Taranta’s soul is a horcrux and amalgamation of two culinary cultures – Peruvian and Italian. Its menu is a creative collection of dishes full of flavorful ingredients and techniques from these two different countries. At first listen, the notion of a restaurant fusing food from Italy and Peru sounds odd, but in this oddity is definitely an intelligent and adventurous eating experience.
Everyone loves Italian food, whether it is the legit dishes from the motherland or America’s reincarnation in the plates of spaghetti & meatballs and pizza. Yet Peruvian cuisine is one that is lost to the American eater. For years, food thought leaders predicted that it is from Peru that America will find its next ethnic culinary craze – following in the footsteps of Mexican, Chinese, Indian, and Japanese cuisines. Recent claims have resurfaced with Todd English calling it the “next big thing” and the Economist stating Peru is “one of the world’s dozen or so cuisines“. But what is Peruvian food?
In a nutshell, Peruvian cuisine is a hodgepodge of culinary traditions that migrated over from all over the world paired with its diverse range of indigenous ingredients. At its root is its pre-Incas and Inca heritage. Over the years, techniques and ingredients from the Spanish, Basque, African, Sino-Cantonese, Japanese and finally Italian, French and British immigration (mainly throughout the 19th century) were introduced and acclimated. Staple ingredients include corn, potatoes, beans, quinoa, kiwicha, chili peppers, and other tubular roots. What makes Peru so unique is that within its country is a tremendous range of different ecosystems ranging from the sweeping coast lines on the Pacific, to heaven touching mountains, to parched deserts, and jungles. With this diversity also comes a plethora of ingredients and varying specialized dishes and eating depending on the particular ecosystem one is in.
Flavors such as aji armaillo, a Peruivan yellow pepper, and panca, Peruvian hot pepper that reminds me of chipotle, bring heat and honesty to other Peruivan tastes such as Pisco, a sour brandy-like liqueur, ceviche, fermented corn and roasted guinea pig.
Wikipedia has a great write-up including the regional diets and dishes within Peru, here
Peru meets Italy at Taranta Cucina
Once someone does their homework and learn that Peru is home to over 700+ dishes spanning influences from many cultures, ingredients, and ecosystem, it becomes less of a stretch to see why a Peruvian and Italian restaurant combination makes sense. Chef Jose Duarte is the man behind the great flavors coming out of Taranta’s kitchen. His menu is a fun mix of Peru meets Italy across varying degrees. Some plates lean towards being strictly Italian or Peruvian, while others sing out loud fusion.
The restaurant itself is fairly small, or at least the downstairs area, and fairly dark lit. It is a sweet environment for dates and small groups, looking for an alternative food night. Starting off with the pan roasted mussels is a must. These plump and meaty mussels are cooked with Marsala, the beautiful Italian cooking wine with incredible depth of fortified sweetness, is gorgeous with the pancetta porkiness and balsamic roasted shallots. My dad could have easy finished two of these mussel starters by himself. For me, what really took this dish to a whole new level were the balsamic roasted shallots. The Causa de Cangrejo is a Peruvian spin on crab salad paired with Peruvian potatoes, avocado, botija olives and aji amarillo aioli. The dish is fresh, clean, yet packs a subtle punch from the olives and slight heat from the aji. Both of these dishes were perfectly seasoned and lip-smacking. The Coccio di Pesce e Legumi, a seafood mix of baby octopus, cuttlefish, clams, and chickpeas in a spicy tomato sauce is another stellar dish. Full of flavor and succulent pieces of perfectly cooked seafood with melt in your mouth cuttlefish and octopus.
Taranta’s pastas is where the whimsical fusions really start to take flight. The Gnocchi di yucca con ragu verde stilo seco Peruviano is out of sight. It is a Cassava root gnocchi with a slow braised “Chicha de Jora” green lamb ragu and shaved parmesan. Chica de Jora is a Peruvian corn cider. The gnocchi were fluffy and like mini pillows and the braised lamb sauce was unique with a nice level of spiciness. Needless to say, this dish was scarfed down. Other cool pasta dishes included the fusilli cooked in parchment paper with smoked peppers and roasted tomatoes and the orecchiette with aji amarillo sausage and broccoli rabe.
For entrees, we shared the pork chop and trout dishes. I was tipped off by a co-worker to get the pork chop and he’s a man that does not recommend a dish unless it is phenomenal. He did not disappoint. The pork chop is unlike the one you find in the local supermarket. This puppy was a double cut pork chop, brined with a sugar cane and served with rocoto pepper glaze served with a yucca piatella and a sauté of giant Peruvian Corn, spinach and caramelized onion. The flavors were bold yet subtle, creating the perfect dish. The sugar cane provided a pretty level of sweetness, which went well with the spicy rocoto pepper glaze. The dish had a hint of smokiness to it, even adding more depth. The accompaniments to the dish brought much welcomed additional texture. This is one thought-out plate and the pork cooked perfectly. Is this the best pork chop in Boston? It may well be. The trout fish was grilled and brushed with saffron butter. It was served with pallares, yellow Peruvian potatoes and wilted greens. The dish was subtle and displayed a sense of restraint. It did not have the wow factor of the pork chop, but was a well-seasoned, flavorful, enjoyable dish. The saffron butter is not overpowered by the flame of the grill and the fish juices drip into the potatoes and greens in the plate, which was awesome.
Other creative entrees include a pan-roasted chicken stuffed with fontina and Peruvian olives, an espresso encrusted filet mignon served with a algarrobina-vincotto sauce, and the macadamia crusted salmon topped with a pisco-Sicilian blood orange sauce.
Taranta Cucina is not a place for those that like subtle flavors. This restaurant screams boldness and richness. The flavor profiles are strong, but in no way overpower the main ingredients of each dish. Some of Taranta’s dishes (particularly those with spice) not only showcased Peruvian and Italian cuisines, but also had an Asian / Chinese taste to it, which made the experience all the more interesting and spectacular.