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Serendipity plays a larger part in restaurant reviews than most admita bill of fare that catches the eye, an inspired server, a slam dunk by the chef, or a day when the planets line up can mean bravos. Sometimes, too, a great place may go unremarked, overshadowed by a more illustrious neighbor which becomes the area's star. Such seemed the case on my first visit to Spazzia.
I ended up there following the opening of Chester Higgins's show, "Elder Grace," at the New-York Historical Society. The celebration of the wisdom of older black folk and the meltdown of emotion at seeing a five-foot-tall image of my late mother necessitated a big drink and a satisfying dinner. Isabella's, the culinary star in the environs of the Museum of Natural History, was jumping. So a quick jaywalk and a perusal of four or five competing menus led me and my guest to Spazzia.
There were only a few diners occupying the booths and well-spaced tables in the main room, and the glassed-in dining terrace was virtually empty. The offerings seemed a world tour of ingredients and techniques: risotto and hummus, pastas and chutneys, hearts of palm and Moroccan olives. Mediterranean tastes predominated, but a few basic dishes guaranteed solace for the most ardent meat-and-potatoes fanatic. Following a calming glass of champagne, we settled in for salads. My friend's rose of roasted beets was perfectly complemented by a topping of mildly vinegared onion strings and a creamy bit of goat cheese ($9). My Everest of tender baby spinach leaves and arugula ($9) was a grazer's bliss. My waist-conscious friend's portobello appetizer ($8) amply served as a main. A savory napoleon, it combined the meaty fungus with the flakiness of phyllo and added hints of pungent provolone, roasted red bell peppers, and crunchy pine nuts, with a drizzle of balsamic reduction to subtly highlight each flavor. My deceptively simple roast chicken ($17) arrived with a side of mashed sweet potato and a slither of sautéed spinach mined with chunks of roasted garlic that made food-combining a must: a bite of crisp sage-rubbed bird, spinach for the garlic's pungency, and mash for sweetyum. But doubt remained. Could they do it again, or was disappointment lurking?
There was still no crowd when I returned a few weeks later with friends. I snagged the beets again, which were as sweet and tangy as remembered. The warm calamari salad ($9) tickled my friends' fancy with tender bands of cooked squid on a bed of grilled red peppers and olives atop a toss of mesclun. The crispy roasted duck ($22) perched on a stew of white beans flavored with the dark rich taste of figs and port wine scored a knockout. And it's no canard to say that the pappardelle with duck confit ($18) actually set one of my fellow gourmands to hummingfork-tender flesh mixed with wild mush- rooms and roasted pepper in a slightly creamy sauce that was an unctuous delight. A done-to-a-turn hanger steak ($19) arrived with crispy onion rings and more of the sublime spinach and left us all too dazzled for dessert. We settled instead for a round of postprandial libations and the comfort of knowing that the serendipitous find was no flash in the pan.