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Octopus mortadella & more obscure dishes at Russell House Tavern

Octopus mortadella dish at Russell House Tavern, Harvard Square, Cambridge
Octopus mortadella dish at Russell House Tavern, Harvard Square, Cambridge
Charlene Peters

Harvard Square is one of the busiest areas in Cambridge, so it would make perfect sense that a row of restaurants would line the streets of the Square. Parking, however, is a significant issue, as is driving in to the congested area. It is, in all honesty, a walking city, so take public transportation if you can. And if you drive, my suggestion is to read the parking signs carefully. What you think might not be a space, actually may be upon second glance. Sometimes parking is prohibited during certain hours or days. Fortunately, after being stuck in some heavy duty traffic, I secured a spot right outside the front door, mainly because I took the time to read the parking sign correctly and figured out it was, in fact, legal to park there.

The history of Harvard Square is worth a visit on its own, but witnessing the Harvard University campus life is a fun perk, especially when you take a seat in Russell House Tavern. I headed in through the red brick pathway in the heart of the happening area, and in a building whose original occupant, Thomas Russell, a furniture dealer who also contributed to the development of Harvard Square in the mid-1800s, remains a legacy in his namesake of Russell House Tavern.

Once inside, I headed downstairs, past the bistro-noise-level crowd at the bar, and took my seat at one of several wooden booths. As I peeked around, I noticed lots of vintage photos of Harvard Square, and then I got a look at the menu. Wow. This was different.

Octopus Mortadella? Really? OK, I’ll try it, I decided. Maybe it was in the way the cheese is shaped, I thought. But when it was brought to my table, I was stunned to see an actual octopus shaped in one twirled direction with a terrine of pistachios, guanciale (pig’s cheek), chickpeas and olives. I cut off a small piece from one of several legs on my plate and expected to be chewing for a long time, as this has been the case each time I’ve eaten octopus. But this was different. It was tasty, albeit different. It didn’t taste like chicken, as one might suspect. It certainly wasn’t steak-like. It was a texture all on its own, and Chef Thomas Borgia seemingly wants to make the same claim. He wants to be an outlier among the competition. And what better way to draw in a crowd than to offer tavern menu items college students – very smart ones, in fact – would taste on a dare, if not fall in love with a new flavor.

Smart move, Chef Borgia.

Add to this a collection of craft beers, hand-crafted cocktails, and you’ve got yourself an establishment sure to draw crowds of college-aged patrons. More menu items are fried oysters, smoked lamb belly meatballs, braised beef tongue toast, and several flatbread pizzas, one with steak and blue cheese.

For anyone with an adventurous palate, head to Russell House Tavern, located at 14 JFK St. in Cambridge, open 7 days a week. Visit for more information, or call 617-500-3055.Tavern

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