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Globe North Dining Out

At Alia's, attention to details

September 21, 2008
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Alia Ristorante
495 Shirley St., Winthrop
617-539-1600
Hours: Monday through Thursday, noon to 9:30 p.m.; Friday, noon to 10:30 p.m.; Saturday, 8 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 9:30 p.m.
All major credit cards accepted.
Restroom not handicapped-accessible.

It was about to rain when we ducked into the empty Alia Ristorante on a Tuesday night after work. It wasn't a night when diners would be out in droves. A friend had told us about the year-old restaurant in Winthrop's off-the-beaten-track Crystal Cove neighborhood, and about Said Lahyani, its Moroccan-born proprietor, maitre d', waiter, and neighborhood pal.

This is a man for whom athletic shoes, a T-shirt, and shorts are the only possible attire to accommodate such uncommon energy.

Said (it's hard to imagine anyone calling him Mr. Lahyani) bobs, bolts, swoops in with plates of food, and whisks away others - all with the exuberance of someone happy to be in charge of his own show.

We found a seat in the corner, tucked into a bay window, and learned, before we sat down, that Alia had no liquor license. Not to worry, Said said. If we needed wine or beer, a liquor store was a minute's walk away. Go, go! He ushered one of us out the door, pointed in the right direction, and reappeared with a bottle opener moments later. "All right, party time!" he said. Then, pulling up a chair, he began offering us advice on the menu.

That's what you get when you come to Alia, whether you're the first customers in the place or part of the crowd that slowly fills the tables as the night wears on: personal attention, the kind you get when you return home after a long absence and your parents are bend-over-backwards thrilled to see you.

With Algerian rai music filling the simple space, Said told us about working his way up from busing tables at Locke-Ober in Boston years ago; about his Italian-American wife, who works for WGBH; and especially about becoming a first-time father three months ago.

"I came from Morocco with nothing," he said, kissing his fingers and thrusting them skyward. "God is good."

The menu is Mediterranean-inspired Italian, not Moroccan. As we waited for our orders, we munched on crusty, oven-hot bread that came with a saucer of oil and olives. A garden salad ($4) was straightforward: iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, cukes, carrots, and onions.

An appetizer of hot eggplant rolatini, stuffed with ricotta and spinach and topped with tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese ($7), was tender and rich. We both devoured it - after Said dashed over to our table to sprinkle parmesan on top of the creation. (A staff of two was working the kitchen when we visited, so Said was free to patrol the dining room.)

For a pasta entree, we picked the orecchiette con salsiccia ($12), a heaping plate of small cuplike noodles with sweet Italian sausage and broccoli in a creamy parmesan sauce. It was hearty, huge, and good, with plenty to relish a second time for lunch the next day.

The lamb ossobucco ($15), braised and simmered in herb stock with olives and preserved lemons, arrived in two big chunks, with the bones, on a square plate with a heap of al-dente vegetables that included zucchini and cauliflower.

Said had evidently noticed us perk up when he'd mentioned Alia's homemade tiramisu earlier. Shortly after he cleared our plates, a piece of the tiramisu ($6) appeared before us, complete with two spoons. We could have eaten two pieces, but appreciated Said's consideration for our waistlines and our appetites: Since we hadn't finished our entrees, he probably thought we couldn't possibly demolish two pieces of tiramisu. Not finish Alia's tiramisu? Oh yes, we could have.

COCO McCABE AND DOUG STEWART

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