Food & dining
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    What She’s Having

    What She’s Having: Get yourself to Trattoria Nina. You can thank me later.

    Shrimp, calamari, and squid ink at Trattoria Nina in Arlington.
    Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff
    Shrimp, calamari, and squid ink at Trattoria Nina in Arlington.

    There are some places that feel like salvation in the rain, even when it isn’t raining.

    Take Trattoria Nina in Arlington. It’s a tiny little storefront on a quiet street corner across from an auto-body shop in a former rundown pizza parlor. Sometimes mist steams up the windows when it’s dark or wet outside. Drive by quickly, and you’ll miss it.



    I first discovered Nina with neighborhood friends. We drank too much wine and stayed for hours and brought our own vinyl, because the place even has a record player. The owner, a kind Sardinian man named Angelo Carbini who used to cook in the North End, looked on with a bemused expression. Eventually we sent our kids around the block to a playground and kept right on eating — penne alla puttanesca with big green olives, fat lobster ravioli drenched in cream, tiramisu.

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    Months later, friends and I were at dinner at a swanky new place in Cambridge. Just one problem: The kitchen was overwhelmed, and they didn’t have food. Really. The waiter came over, apologized, and said that they simply couldn’t serve us food because, well, they didn’t have any.

    What are four women two glasses of white wine into their night supposed to do? Take a Lyft across the border to Trattoria Nina, of course.

    We stumbled in noisily, and Carbini and his son Nico quickly made a table for us near the window. Then the food came. Nothing fancy: Caesar salad draped with anchovies; spaghetti in a thick meat ragu. Not elegant. Not fussy. But it hit the spot.

    Now, Nina is part of my regular neighborhood rotation. You can perch at the bar, chat with Angelo and Nico, and bring whatever records you like — they’ll play ’em. On a recent visit, two locals sat there, sipping red wine, chatting with Angelo about squid. He got a twinkle in his eye, disappeared deep into his kitchen, and returned with a jar of cuttlefish ink. They oohed and ahhed. He beamed.


    Transparency is part of the fun. Carbini cooks in an open kitchen; you can see your pasta as it hits the pan. Sometimes service is a little slow or confused. Sometimes there’s a fish special that doesn’t get mentioned (Carbini specializes in seafood). Occasionally nobody answers the phone when you call for a reservation (and you should; the room is tiny and gets packed).

    But all is forgiven once you dig into mussels, calamari, and shrimp in spicy tomato broth. Once some cold Prosecco hits your lips, you’ll swear you’re in the North End — at the Daily Catch, maybe — except your car is right outside, parked for free. “Revolver” is on the record player. And life is good.

    Prices are fair, too; most dishes are in the $20 range (more for seafood). And this is the kind of place where you just want to tip heavily, because it’s small, and family run, and they’re clearly working so very hard.

    Is it high-end? Nope. Do they even have a website? Not one that I can find. Is it delicious? You bet. Tell Angelo I sent you.

    1510 Massachusetts Ave., Arlington, 781-777-2861

    Kara Baskin can be reached at