Metro, Food, Top Story

At Beacon Hill Restaurant The Hungry I, The Past and Present Are One

When Peter Ballarin cooks, he hears memories.

His aunt guides him through the recipe and childhood days spent at his father’s bakery come back to life. These warm memories feed his cooking mantra: “Every time you cook, you recreate the past.”

To reach Ballarin’s Beacon Hill restaurant The Hungry I, located just below street level, one has to pass—almost literally—through a hole in the wall on Charles Street. Doing so feels quite a bit like escaping into the past, as you vanish from Charles Street and into the small, warmly decorated French restaurant.

Leaning against The Hungry I’s dark wood bar in an orange v-neck sweater, Ballarin is surrounded by tables decorated with white cloths, plates adorned by fruit designs, and wine glasses with napkins artistically folded into them—all patiently waiting for the customers who will fill the establishment.

“I always felt that the restaurant should reflect yourself,” he said of the decor. Descended from bakers in the Italian Dolomites, the restaurant indeed mirrors Ballarin’s Old World culinary sensibilities, and The Hungry I’s three fireplaces—which cast a welcoming glow on all three of the restaurant’s dining rooms—reflect the chef’s sincere and convivial manner as host.

During the interview, Ballarin continues preparing for the guests that have not yet arrived with a manager, switching between English and French—just two of the languages that make up the restaurant’s fabric.

“Your customers are part of your family,” Ballarin said, especially here on Charles St., which he sees as pleasantly separate from the rest of the city and as a village in its own right. “We look after each other here.”

Indeed, a regular in a scarf walked into the restaurant out of the cold shortly before opening. Ballarin offered him a glass of wine, and the customer warmed his hands at the fire as if it were his own home.

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Ballarin’s restaurant has made its place on Charles St. since 1981, after he bought The Hungry I as a young man. The restaurant, according to Ballarin, had once been called The Hungry Intellectual, and it was a cafe where poets and singers would gather.

Looking to make his own mark on the restored 1840s brownstone, Ballarin had plans to change the establishment’s name to The Hideaway, a fitting name for the restaurant that is hard to peek into from street level—but Boston Magazine was eager to look into the young chef’s new venture, and a review was published without notice before he could make the change. So the name stayed.

Ballarin’s decision to keep the restaurant’s traditional name proved fitting for its location—his view across the street hasn’t changed in the three decades since he first bought The Hungry I.

“If I look through the window,” he said, pointing across the street, “nothing has changed since 1981.”

Much of Charles St., Ballarin acknowledged, has of course changed, and so does The Hungry I—just as the seasons do. As an autumnal chill rolls across Boston, the restaurant’s menu reflects the change, adopting accents of pumpkin and cranberry. The venison au poivre and rabbit a la moutarde are among the dishes Ballarin expects will do well throughout the season. Even the actual names of the restaurant’s offerings begin to transition. One starter on the current menu is a “cold snow crab mousse crepe,” with the word snow invoking the colder weather to come.

“I think literature and menu-writing is very important—as much as the ambience,” he said. Together, these elements can make a dining experience superb, so long as the food is also exemplary. The point, Ballarin said, is helping customers to enjoy what they are eating in the moment.

“Cuisine is now,” he said, taking a breath as if to breathe in some distant scent, or, perhaps, a memory. “Now.”

It seems contradictory, maybe, for a man who so lovingly strives to recreate the past to place such a heavy emphasis on the present, but the contradiction is the restaurant’s most important rule. It is the escape into the past that allows its customers to live in the moment.

Known commonly as one of the most romantic restaurants in Boston, it is said that countless proposals have transpired within its walls—but engagement, Ballarin suggested, might miss the point. An engagement is a plan for the future, but romance is for the present. Like food, it is to be savored.

“Romance is an enjoyment of the richness that you have at the moment,” he said. “Romance is saying ‘Not yet’ for the check. We all know ‘Not yet.’”

It is the moments that people keep that add to something, just like the childhood memories that fostered Ballarin’s love for cuisine. When he would visit his father’s bakery, he was enthralled by the culinary skill of those around him, but mostly by the scents.

“God,” he said. “The aromas.”

Ballarin recalled a particular treat that was given to him as a child—a light donut rolled in sugar. Once, he asked his older sister if she remembered it as well.

“Oh my God,” she said. “Yes.”

Through food, the memory stood as a present moment. That’s the way it works at The Hungry I.

Featured Image by Emily Fahey / Heights Editor

October 16, 2014

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