“Richer took over the old pizza joint in downtown Maplewood in early 2007 and re-made it to suit his dreams and palate.”
Seven forty-five on a Saturday night, and the show is about to begin. Regulars file into the corner storefront at Maplewood and Baker, settling into seats that almost seem assigned. There are nods of recognition, glances over to the fellow in charge, a sense of anticipation in not-sohushed exchanges. Corks pop. Wine glasses are filled and the floor crew at Arturo’s switches into high gear. At the rear of the intimate restaurant, chef/maestro Dan Richer already has warmed up his wood-burning oven by firing dozens and dozens of pizzas for the early-eating crowd. But right now, as the 8 o’clock hour approaches, he’s dispatching cups filled with husked cherries, also known as bush cherries. They’re nutty little fruits that look a bit like miniature tomatillos, but taste like nothing else on the planet. Peel back the papery skins, flick the fruit into your mouth and wonder how you’ll ever again eat another sugared peanut or mushy olive as a prelude to dinner. They’re the ideal starter for Richer’s unique show. It’s dinner theater, this ritualistic Saturday night minuet between chef and diner, a paean to all that’s locally grown and produced and catches the chef’s discerning eye. There’s no formal bill of fare on this night, just a procession of plates served forth with no fanfare and minimal explanation. It’s based on the trust Richer has built up between himself and his diners, folks who have warmed to the distinctive style of both the rustic, no-frills dining space and the man who delivers a spare, yet deeply satisfying dining experience. “Coppa, house-made,” is the way our server describes the next dish. He knows no embellishment is needed to sell diners on the veritable kaleidoscope made from cured pork shoulder and its fat, presented as delicate slices of salumi that appear air-brushed on the platter. Alone, or partnered with crusty, country bread, this coppa is pretty darn perfect. Actually, so is Arturo’s. Richer took over the old pizza joint in downtown Maplewood in early 2007 and re-made it to suit his dreams and palate. Pizzas are now of the modern age – that is to say, they go back in time to ovens fueled by wood, to crusts born of kneading and slow-rise techniques, to toppings that tilt toward Spartan, not extra-anything. A welledited selection of those thin-crust pizzas plus pastas are the order of the night five days a week, with Tuesdays turned over to a scaled-back tasting menu and Saturdays the destination-diner extravaganza. On that night, Richer goes strictly market and microseasonal. It’s completely, obsessively ingredient-driven in a good way. Ask about the olive oil, for instance, and you’ll be brought a bottle of the newest member of the Arturo’s Olive Oil Brigade, an unfiltered number from Puglia whose fruitiness makes already silky-sweet scallops even silkier and sweeter. These scallops are the star of Richer’s crudo, a bowl of dense and rich shellfish bathed in the Puglian oil with needle-thin slivers of French breakfast radish that add color and bite to the raw-fish dish. There are a few twirls of baby greens—so tiny that they probably are better thought of as newborn greens—to add color and contrast, and that’s it. It’s gentle, it’s refined, it’s an exacting example of what this chef is trying to do: simplify, simplify, simplify. That’s his culinary style, and it’s both brave and smart. While others less secure in their métier, less confident of their skills, fuss and add a silly number of frills to a plate, Richer practices the art of the take-away. He pares down a dish to its fundamentals, letting his ingredients assume center stage. A salad of baby arugula, for instance, is accented by thin slices of peaches and flecks of shaved Parmigiano- Reggiano. That’s it. High-season tomatoes, both cheery Sun Golds and beefy San Marzanos, are chopped and set in a glass compote to be served only with a sprinkling of sea salt. The tomatoes’ own juices make it good to the last drop. Tagliolini, a thin-strand pasta, is too fresh, too creamy in taste and texture to need anything more than a handful of teeny cubes of zucchini and a little grated Parmigiano Reggiano. We all but bribed our server to admit to an infusion of cream or butter. No, we were told. Nothing but the fresh pasta, the zucchini, the Parmigiano-Reggiano. That’s what good pasta can do. And a good hunk of pork shank needs but a bed of earthy kale to keep it company. In northern states, it’s such an underappreciated partnership, anything pig and greens. In Richer’s hands, it could be the next big thing in Yankeeland. His whipped ricotta, served with raspberries and what possibly was a mirage of shaved dark chocolate, is precisely what dessert should be: neither overwhelmingly sweet nor baroque in scale. I would’ve had seconds had seconds been offered, however, since I’ve always dreamed of cheese and fruit being transformed into just this kind of finale. I left Arturo’s thinking that either I should 1) move to Maplewood or 2) convince Richer to take his show on the road to my hometown. I’ll further assess these options when I return to Arturo’s for the duck prosciutto, hazelnut-pear salad and pasta with wild boar ragu. For without a doubt, this food needs to be a regular part of my eating life. EDGE
Arturo’s 180 Maplewood Avenue, Maplewood 973.378.5800 Open Sunday through Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Reservations are accepted only for the Tuesday and Saturday night tasting menus—in fact, they are required for those nights. The Tuesday night tasting ($30) begins at 7 and the Saturday night tasting ($48) at 7:45. Pizzas start at $6.50 and go up to $16.50; pastas range in price from $9.95 to $16.95; salads from $7.95 to $10.95; salumi is $7.95 for an individual portion and $15.95 for the daily selection. All major credit cards are accepted. BYOB. Service is cheerful and helpful.