Beet and Burrata, a small plate at Bambolina in Salem, is an exciting play of textures and flavors. Chunks of sweet, earthy beets nestle alongside creamy, rich mozzarella, topped with crisp watercress, while slivers of pickled celery root add a tart component and pistachios contribute a salty crunch.
The generous vegetable dish, beautifully presented on a wooden slab, is perfect for sharing—although the light, creamy beet puree dressing will have dining companions battling for the last bite.
From Lift to Airbnb, sharing is trendy right now, and nowhere more so than at Bambolina. In the year and a half since opening, partners Tim Haigh and Larry Leibowitz have expanded their offering of small plates by about 20 percent; it now marches down the entire left side of the menu. And of course, pizza—the restaurant’s main focus—has always been a shared food. Even the entrees, tucked away toward the end of the menu, are easily split.
“The menu has really evolved since we opened,” Haigh says. “The trend is going away from everyone getting their own entrée or appetizer to having a shared or collaborative experience.”
And it’s also the way Haigh prefers to dine when he goes out. “Whenever I go to a restaurant, I want to try a little bit of everything,” Haigh says. “I think it’s almost selfish when everyone just gets their own dish.”
Certainly, selfishness isn’t on display at Bambolina. Cast a glance around at the tables on a busy Saturday night, and most everyone, from friends to couples to families and groups, is sampling from shared plates of a wide variety of flavors—anything from paper-thin slices of beef carpaccio, arrayed on a generous plate, to grilled Caesar salad, slightly charred but crisp and cool on the inside, draped with anchovies. Pizzas can be had in the classic Margherita style or topped with anything from a delectable combination of perfectly cooked shrimp, garlic, and sea beans to Brussels sprouts and blue cheese.
Leibowitz says it’s all in service to avoiding what he calls “the monotony of eating, where you get this large plate of something and you are sick of it by the tenth bite. We like the idea of people being able to mix and match.”
To that end, a lot of thought goes into plating, Leibowitz says. “We’re really cognizant of the portioning to make sure the plates are easily sharable,” he explains, adding that even the presentation of each dish is customized to make it easier to share. “Ensuring that a table of two, or even three or four, can enjoy any dish easily is something we pay a lot of attention to.”
Even the restaurant itself—and the service—is designed to create a collaborative vibe. A large communal table in the center of the restaurant invites strangers to admire one another’s meals, while seating around the exterior can be configured for a variety of different-size parties.
“The atmosphere of the restaurant is conducive to sharing,” Leibowitz says. “It’s casual, and I think our staff does a terrific job of creating an individual experience like you’d get at home.”
The menu evolves pretty regularly, with a few new items appearing and a few old ones phasing out, driven in part by what is available from local growers like Maitland Mountain Farm in Salem and Astro Farms in Beverly. There are also some seasonal favorites, like asparagus soup and a Caprese salad with heirloom tomatoes, that make an annual appearance when those items are at their peak.
“We really like to buy from local farms,” Haigh says. “Whatever they have available, we want to work with them to put it on the menu, in as many different ways as possible.” So baby carrots, for example, may turn up simply roasted with a side of dill yogurt in one dish, and pickled in another.
Guests’ willingness to try something new is perhaps thanks to the small commitment of a small plate, as well as the partners’ the dedication to quality of ingredients; from the imported flour for their pizza dough to the hit of fresh herbs in the Organic Herb Greens salad, letting those flavors come through is key.
“Our influences are really about letting the ingredients shine,” Leibowitz says. “We pride ourselves on making the restaurant a collaborative environment, from operations through the kitchen. So many of our food items have bubbled up from the staff.” Especially from chef de cuisine Chris Allain, who often works with Haigh and Leibowitz to create new dishes, like the Melanzane pizza. A sort of eggplant parmesan on a pie, it is served New Haven style, with the cheese on the bottom, followed by toppings and a hit of cool herbed ricotta cheese after baking.
Haigh says the small plates let the chefs explore a variety of tastes and preparations—and engage customers for more than just a meal. “Larry and I both like to eat that way; it almost has a family feel. It’s the way that people eat at home.”
288 Derby St., Salem