We’ve come to associate Italian-American restaurants with a certain aesthetic: The walls are crowded with gold-framed photos of stern-looking gangsters; the tables are stuffed together, overflowing with platters of red sauce and butter and cream; and men are hunched in secluded booths drinking big bottles of wine and whispering about refusing offers and taking cannolis.
That’s mostly how they look in the movies at least, and when you walk into a restaurant like that today, it can trick you into feeling like you’ve stepped into a place of authenticity. Really, it’s an Epcot recreation of an Italian-American restaurant, where big spenders are taken care of and women often feel more comfortable rolling fettuccine dough in the kitchen than ordering veal chops to the table.
Orfano, the newest concept from Boston celebrity restauranteur Tiffani Faison and partner Kelly Walsh, aims to flip that stereotype. Here, strong women rule the kitchen and the dining room. (Men are also welcome.) This is a boy’s club for the girls, where the concept of who belongs in what dining room, who owns what restaurant, is completely reversed.
“[We are looking at it] through a different lens,” Chef Faison said. “My wife and I talk a lot about the experiences we have had in some of the finer dining rooms or steakhouses. There’s often an assumption that we’re not going to buy the big bottle of wine or we’re not going to eat the big steak or we’re not going to be the big spenders. And so there have been times that we’ve been marginalized or invisible in those rooms. That’s not the case here.”
Orfano, a 96-seat stunner in the Fenway neighborhood, literally feels soft and whimsical. Booths are covered in purple velvet, linens are on display and oversized prints of beautiful women—including Faison’s and her staff’s ancestors, Anna Pellegrino, the matriarch of Rao’s, and Lady Gaga eating spaghetti—hang on the walls. Windows stretch to the roof, bathing the tables in natural light, a collage of Sophia Loren is tucked away on the ceiling and a martini cart rambles around the dining room, offering “a stirring, tableside performance.”
The restaurant opened last week near Faison’s three other hot spots: Sweet Cheeks Q (barbecue), Tiger Mama (Southeastern Asian) and Fool’s Errand (cocktails and finger foods). While Boston has plenty of Italian restaurants, Faison felt she could bring a new point of view to the cuisine, making it fun and approachable, while still preserving a nostalgic sense of place and time.
“If you want to come in and have a very adult meal, you can do that as opposed to my other three restaurants, which are various forms of rock concerts,” she said. “You know, they’re loud and there’s shared plates and everything is spicy and punchy. I had to really think about the food in a way that still felt playful and like me, the more adult version of me. I’m getting older. I want to sit down and eat my food and maybe spend like two hours doing it.”
The Orfano menu has clear delineations and multiple courses: la tavolo, antipasti, insalata, pasta, maccelleria, segundi, contorni. The classics are there, but not really.
“Everyone has an idea of what lasagna is. Everyone has an idea of what a vodka sauce is. And so how do we talk about those things? We really try to understand what those expectations are, pull it apart and put it back together in a thoughtful, lovely way,” she said.
Garlic bread is fired to order and comes out in a paper bag with a silky Parmesan mousse. The Caesar salad includes Chrysanthemums and sliced avocado. Salt-and-pepper calamari comes with a dim sum dipping sauce. The Cacio e Pepe is made with tortelloni stuffed with Taleggio and salsa verde.
“We tried to make sure it isn’t like ‘look at me’ food. It’s not boastful. It’s thoughtful. It is inherently feminine in its presentation and also form,” she said. “It feels so different and special in here. We keep looking at each other like, is this really happening? This is the 17th opening in my career. But this just has this feeling that I’ve never felt before.”