Hugs Italian Restaurant, as its name might suggest, was an inviting and charming place to dine. Even though a few dishes were disappointing, the overall dining experience was enjoyable. The service was very attentive and gracious, and the décor, though fitted out in predictable Italianate kitsch, was bright and cheerful.
Regarding the restaurant’s felicitous name, one apocryphal tale told to me was how the owner hugged everyone who came in to eat. The real story is this: The original owner, Huguette Flannigan, opened the first Hugs at Sugarloaf years ago and used her nickname for the restaurant. Hugs has stuck ever since.
Hugs’ physical location in Falmouth along the Route 1 retail strip has been home to other Italian-style restaurants – Casa Napoli, Johnny’s Bistro and Finch’s. These have given local residents a long-standing go-to neighborhood eatery, and Hugs, established in 2010, continues that tradition with great popularity.
The restaurant is bigger than it appears from the outside. The vestibule leads to an attractive bar area. Off that is an alcove with a piano to accommodate the Jim Ciampi Duo, which plays light dinner music, often enhanced by the vocals of Susie Pepper, on Wednesday and Friday nights from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m.
The dining room is brightly lit with tables spaced comfortably apart. Since we arrived on the early side of 7 p.m., the room was not yet full, and our waitress, Juliana, considered where the three of us would be the most comfortable. She wisely selected a banquette for four, and we had plenty of room to spread out.
The restaurant offers a mixed bag of Italian specialties. Owner Beth McKenney, with whom I spoke at a later date, explained, “We started off with a menu of northern Italian specialties, but so many of our regulars also wanted old-school dishes like veal, chicken and eggplant Parm, we began to offer both cooking styles.”
Our meal began with the restaurant’s highly touted meatballs, which are offered at $2 apiece and were a good hors d’oeuvre to pair with wine and cocktails. They were moist, very flavorful and served with a decent house-made red sauce. With it we also had the kitchen’s fresh-baked focaccia, which held a tasty topping of pesto and shavings of Parmesan. The bread, though, was dry and dense and could have benefited from being served warm instead of as the tepid slices that filled the bread basket. Still the topping was so good we actually asked for a refill.
While the aforementioned meatballs were a good snack with drinks, we progressed to more serious first courses. One was a baked portabello mushroom ($9) stuffed with a cheese-and-sausage risotto served in a pink tomato sauce. The filling was flavorful, though the rice had become pasty in the process.
The seafood cake ($10) that we chose as another starter seemed pricey for only one cake on the plate. It was, however, ceremoniously presented under a blizzard of lemony cream sauce enriched liberally with a virtual bushel basket of capers. Still, it was an invigoratingly appetizing dish with the prominent flavors of crab meat, whitefish and capers bound together to good effect.
A nice touch is the complimentary salad that’s presented at the table in an old-fashioned, faux-wood-grain bowl served family-style. Filled with mixed greens, pepper, onions and olives, it was a refreshing interlude.
The range of entrees is fairly extensive. The menu offers selections of pastas in pink or red sauce ($13 to $22); Parmesans of veal, chicken or eggplant ($17 to $24); various chicken dishes like chicken piccata ($22) and other sautés over pasta. Fish is used as the basis for pasta in cream sauces. The menu also offers many veal preparations. Dishes like veal piccata ($24), veal Française ($24) and veal Romano ($22) are typical enticements.
We focused on the chicken selections. One guest chose the chicken Parmesan ($20), which is a good test of a kitchen’s style. Out came a generous helping of breaded and sautéed cutlets bathed in a bright red sauce with a plentiful blanket of melted mozzarella. Served over shells and penne, it was a substantial, flavorful dish.
Another guest opted for the chicken limone ($22). Lightly breaded and sautéed, it was set in a lemony garlic butter sauce accompanied by fettuccine. However, the piquant assertiveness that is typical of this dish was missing; it was instead listless and bland.
My pick was chicken cacciatore ($21), which was not a success. Indeed, there are many versions of this mainstay of Italian kitchens. A classic preparation is to cut up chicken in parts left on the bone, which is then braised in wine and fortified with peppers, tomatoes, onions, mushrooms and spices. Hugs’ version used strips of breast off the bone, producing a thinly flavored dish without the intensity of a properly stewed chicken.
We noticed that in all of our dishes where pasta was part of the preparation, the macaroni were generally overcooked way beyond the al dente stage.
The dessert menu was hardly a splendiferous collection of cakes and pastries that came from outside bakers or institutional vendors. There were the usual items like tiramisu, cannoli and cheesecake. We picked the cheesecake ($7) thinking that most examples of this from a professional bakery can be OK. It wasn’t. It had the texture of wallpaper paste and was an anti-climactic ending to an otherwise agreeable meal.
John Golden, who lives in Portland, writes about food, dining and lifestyle subjects for local and national publications. He can be reached at: