In greater Boston there was a time when "barbecue" was synonymous with ribs and ribs only. Nowhere to be found were pulled pork, brisket or even the smoke used to cook ribs in such a way that they could legitimately be called barbecue.
Ribs it was, and falling-off-the-bone tenderness back then wasn't a dreaded symptom of overcooking but a badge of honor. At Tommy Floramo's, it was also their claim to fame—radio ads proclaimed it as the place (raise the volume and add a little reverb) "where the meat falls off the bone!"
Somewhere along the line in these dark days, grilled steak tips became associated with barbecue too. New Bridge Cafe has babybacks too, but their reputation was built on their steak tips that are still considered by many to be the best in metro Boston. They also found themselves on many a "best bbq" list, and that's how Zagat categorizes them. I'd wanted to try New Bridge for years and Floramo's for decades, but lacking a GPS, a wife willing to slum it and the courage to venture into gritty Chelsea, I kept putting it off. Until a few Saturdays ago, when I hit both for a two-phased lunch.
This crawl wasn't intended to be a competition between the two, but they're so similar that comparisons are inevitable. Rather than review separately, I'll go item by item, touching on both.
Floramo's: First up was Tommy Floramo's, whose windows protected with iron bars inspired confidence. A cheesy looking Italian chef mannequin offers silent greeting at the door before the real greeting from a friendly bunch of hostesses and servers. The dining room is large, old looking, more Italian than meat emporium and more cheesy than intimidating. Even the bar seemed tame—the brutish bartender who threatened me when I took a photo was the only dent in an otherwise welcoming vibe.
New Bridge: This "cafe" is more of a sports bar, but more from the decor than any attention to quantity, size or quality of TVs. The split level layout includes a bar too.
Edge: Floramo's. Cooler New Bridge is a lot less cheesy but a lot less comfortable.
It's served gratis at both, though it's best to limit the intake, because both are big on the portions.
Edge: No real edge here.
It's included at Floramo's but not at New Bridge. The salad is basic, consisting mostly of lettuce and a few tomatoes, but it's a welcome touch of hospitality.
Floramo's: They serve ribs as half and full rack dinners as well as on the combo that included five bones' worth. True to the motto, the meat did fall off the bone—raising a bone from the plate left the meat behind. No surprises as far as lack of pink color or smoke ring; it's not a barbecue joint. The meat was tender and moist, though more from external sources (sauce, possibly stewing) than internal ones. Light char on top made a foil for the uber tender meat. The saucing got the ribs well coated but not overwhelmed with a rather mild barbecue sauce. The meat itself? Even more mild.
New Bridge: Ribs are babybacks here as well. On a full rack they hung off both ends of a neighbor's plate. We went with a combo that also included lamb tips. Even the half rack here was quite substantial, more so than my inadequate photos captured and so much so that I can say it was the most voluminous example of babybacks I've ever encountered. Just like the earlier serving across town, they weren't smoked. Saucing was more neutral. Crusting was lighter but texture was more grown-up: they reminded me of pork shanks, with much moisture that included lrgitimate juiciness.
Edge: New Bridge. Bigger, juicier, porkier, just as tender but less overdone.
Floramo's: Was that a freakin' long sausage on that plate, or was it just happy to see me? Well, at the risk of setting myself up for ridicule, I can say that I was happy to see it. We're talking foot long here, possibly longer. A nice light crust, some charcoaly flavor and decent moistness that didn't quite gush. Flavor was neither sweet nor spicy; traditional fennel led the way.
New Bridge: Size, light crusting, charcoaliness and texture mimicked the Floramo's sample, though this one had a slightly higher moistness level that might not have gushed either, but I did see a trickle. Flavor was very different: no fennel but substantial heat.
Edge: New Bridge. The different flavors were good at both places; I preferred the heat but the moistness advantage was indisputable.
Floramo's: Here we tried steak, chicken and turkey tips, all included on the sampler combo. Of the two poultry offerings (I wasn't sure which was which), one was very moist—even juicy—and the other was fairly dry. The percentages would say that the first was chicken and the second was turkey, but I've had plenty of moist turkey and dry chicken, so you never know. Both had light grill flavor without char and a minimal application of fairly neutral sauce—a different one for each. The giant steak tip did have some char in just the right amount, along with a wiltingly tender interior that hardly required chewing. It was obvious that done attention had been paid to this meat; they didn't just sauce it and grill it. The sauce, which was only slightly more liberally applied, added moisture, but there was plenty of its own. I was both surprised and impressed by the quality.
New Bridge: Here we tried lamb tips (which, in retrospect, would have been nice to try at Floramo's for comparison) and the steak tips, which have become their signature item. The tips came on separate combos, each paired with another meat (we chose lamb with ribs, steak with sausage), so there were more tips to go around (four of each).
I only tried one lamb tip and while it had a strong, pleasantly gamey flavor mixed with just the right amount of grilliness, it was dry. And I mean dry.
The steak tips were much better than the lamb and exhibited all of the qualities you want: crusty outside, tender inside, pink color, juicy, a little saucy and not over sauced. Flavor came from the beef and grill; sauce helped with moisture but never got in the way.
Edge: Floramo's in an upset. I'm only comparing the steak tips as that was the only item in common. Perhaps high expectations going in for New Bridge and low ones for Floramo's had something to do with it, but I swear the Floramo's steak tips were just as flavorful and significantly more luscious, at least that day.
At each place you get a choice of potato, rice or pasta, and I chose ziti at both. Neither would win any Best of Boston awards, but I give them both credit for properly draining the pasta so that it's not watery (like at far too many red sauce joints I purposely avoid). The sauce was simple at both, very red and tomatoey, but thicker than most. Flavor was fairly mild, as expected, but Floramo's was noticeably saltier.
Edge: You decide—Floramo's if the salt is welcome, New Bridge if not.
We ordered an extra side at New Bridge based on seeing it on another table as we walked in. These steak fries are actually wedges, and they're a huge step up from what you'd see at KFC. The potato used is nearly a foot long, so these fries go a long way. They're crisp outside like fries, but still very fluffy inside, like a baked potato. A sour cream dip or horseradish or aioli would have knocked these out of the park, but even with mere ketchup they were very enjoyable.
Both places have special pricing deals, but those are off the table on weekends.
The Bottom Line
You don't have to think of it as barbecue. Think of it as a time warp, think of it as a bucket list item, think of it as a history or cultural lesson, or just think of it as filling plates of food with a different backdrop from what you see at the chains. I enjoyed the diversion and would even go back, though probably no more than once every couple of years.
Yelp reviews of Tommy Floramo's
Urbanspoon reviews of Tommy Floramo's
Yelp reviews of New Bridge Cafe
Urbanspoon reviews of New Bridge Cafe
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