Also-Ran No Flash in the Pan

Serendipity plays a larger part in restaurant reviews than most admit—a 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 sweet—yum. But doubt remained. Could they do it again, or was disappointment lurking?

Spazzia ain't Isabella's, but it ain't bad.
photo: Michael Berman
Spazzia ain't Isabella's, but it ain't bad.

Details

Spazzia
366 Columbus Avenue, 212-799-0150.
Lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Brunch Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Friday to midnight, Saturday 5 p.m. to midnight, and Sunday 5 to 10 p.m.
Major credit cards.
Limited wheelchair access.

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 humming—fork-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.

 
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