In the knows-no-bounds sea of pasta peddlers in New York, how does a new Italian restaurant stand out? Quite often it doesn’t—but that doesn’t mean it’s a dud. Take Spasso, a West Village newcomer, for example. The food, while not mind-blowing, will happily feed you, and the space offers a quaint, unpretentious setting—rare in today’s West Village. Welcome to your secret neighborhood spot that everyone now knows about.
Spasso, which means “amusement” in the native tongue, doesn’t quite fit the “rustic Italian chic” mold championed by recent additions Osteria Morini and Ciano. It’s more the classic trattoria gone modern. Think marble and mirrors and leather-backed chairs. Cozy up on a banquette or—if you love the schadenfreude of watching cooks slave in front of hot stoves—at the secluded bar in the back overlooking the semi-open kitchen.
There, you’ll see Craig Wallen (formerly of Lupa and Convivio) preparing a large bowl filled with house-made stracciatella ($9). A spoon would be an apt way to eat the dripping dairy, though the accompanying toasted bread works equally well. Tastier, too. Shaved vegetables, frisée, and anchovies ($9) tumble into a bright and crunchy salad that sings of piazza dining, while pig trotters become funky fried nuggets and a satiny terrine ($9). Just call them by their Italian name—piedini—and no one will know you’re a foot fetishist.
Agnolotti ($19) provides a good excuse to slaughter baby cows (besides your leather stilettos, that is). The veal-plumped pockets might be a meek portion, but your caloric intake will surely be met, thanks to a silky, butter-laden sauce flecked with sage. Overall, the stuffed pastas, which include an excellent pea-and-prawn ravioli ($18), surpass the other noodles, which include an intriguing-sounding but underwhelming maccheroni with pork ragu, goat cheese, and fennel fronds ($20) and a spaghetti in tomato sauce ($16) that is both overly acidic and sweet.
Also take a pass on the trout saltimbocca ($25). You might wonder how prosciutto-wrapped anything could be less than
stellar. Indeed, the dish is well-cooked, but when you realize it comes without a single side or garnish, well, it’s easy to feel like it was you—not the fish—that got gutted. Add in an $8 side and feel the knife turning an extra time in the wound. But you can easily eat without becoming a pauper. Get the juicy duck breast ($28), which stretches across a bed of farro and fresh fava beans—a satisfying dinner, plus tomorrow’s brown-bag lunch.
The desserts won’t win awards for innovation, yet they, too, merit a look-see. Chocolate and caramel go tête-à-tête in a rich crostata flecked with sea salt ($8). Bombolini ($8), Italy’s answer to Dunkin’s Munchkins, are fried and coated in sugar, while a glass of chocolate sauce tags alongside. The orbs are a tad heavy, but when you fry dough and coat it in sugar, there’s really nothing to say except, “Get in my belly.”
Or attain that bella figura by downing some vino. Check out the section called “surprising wines,” devoted to unusual grapes and lesser-known producing regions like Puglia and Calabria. Cocktails, both Italian (a blushing Negroni, $14) and not (a slightly too-tart Hemingway Daiquiri, $14), also entice tipplers. The space gets loud and buzzy come weekends, and elbows tend to fly near your seatmates. But early weekday evenings offer a surprising tranquility, a place filled with neighborhood locals who remember the day when “Cosmo” was just a magazine, cupcakes were served only at four-year-olds’ birthdays, and brunching had yet to become a verb.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 18, 2011