On the fourth day of its official existence, this is not always what a New York restaurant looks like late on a weeknight: the bar and tables are jammed shoulder to shoulder with the hungry. The place is so overbooked with reservations that the only shot at a bite to eat is a more than hour-long wait for a seat at a woefully small counter in the back of the room.
What a difference a favorable pre-opening feature in the New York Times dining section weeks before a restaurant opens makes. Well, and the fact that the owner’s beloved other restaurant, Choptank, has been closed for a spell no thanks to a flood, leaving its fans yearning.
Never able to resist checking out a restaurant in its infancy, however, we decided to stick it out at Spasso, a place that opened in the first days of January in the West Village. Restaurateur Bobby Werhane has earned some decent stripes with his Maryland-style seafood over at Choptank, after all. And Spasso’s chef Craig Wallen himself has dished out some solid Italian at Convivio, L’Impero and Lupa in his previous lives.
A 60-minute wait? As some might say: Meh.
The first thing you’ll notice at Spasso, besides the crowds…
… is the smell. This is not a place for the starving.
Even though its open kitchen is tucked away in the back …
… the scent of grilled meats and hearty pastas will cocoon you the moment you step in.
“You are going to smell,” chef Simpson, one of my dining companions for the evening, who has been patiently waiting for a bit, says the moment I spot him. “And this sweater is new!”
He’s right. This would also not be a place for any item of clothing you remotely care about — unless you plan on drycleaning it the very next day.
We’ve got great seats for the night, though — with a front-row view of a good-humored Wallen in action.
So, naturally, we stay.
“Rustic Italian fare” has been billed as the thing at Spasso. There’s a trout saltimbocca on the menu, along with classic Italian cured meats, a hefty cheese listing and an impressive selection of house-made pastas.
Having fond memories of the delicious amberjack dish we sampled together at the Michelin-starred Ristorante Duomo in Sicily some years back, we begin with the amberjack crudo with fennel, chili and sea urchin ($12). The fish is firm and fresh and the topping is tart, with just a little kick. It could use a little more of the salty sea urchin but is fine as is.
Next time, though, we may persuade the assembly chef to put a little more on as we watch him put the dish together before us.
The mussels al vino bianco are a Manhattan bargain at $10 — our bowl was packed with far more of them than we could eat. They weren’t anything unusual but were adequately satisfying.
Fried oysters are a must whenever I see them on a menu — here, they’re perched atop globs of meyer lemon crema and finished with chicory and pickled onions ($15). The breading is just a little heavy on these oysters and the crema feels just a little too thick. The overall taste is solid, though.
With Wallen’s cred, the pasta is supposed to be the thing here. And indeed, it’s the first thing that truly wows us — ricotta strascinari comes packed with big chunks of braised duck leg and smoked scamorza (an Italian cow’s milk cheese that’s similar to mozzarella).
This dish ($20), though a little on the salty side, is perfection — the duck is packed with flavor and has been braised to impressive tenderness and you’ll find yourself battling long threads of delicious melted cheese as you raise forkfuls to your mouth.
Don’t be fooled by its size — this pasta is so rich the portion would be more than adequate as an entree.
It is around this point that we discover that the concept of “wine by the bottle” is a little tricky here. We’ve ordered a bottle of wine and the waiter has poured each of the four of us an average-sized glass of white. “Where’s the bottle?” we ask — to which he explains that he’s just pouring and by the restaurant’s estimate, a bottle works out to about four glasses.
Simpson, who is in the restaurant business, and I, who am a little bit of an expert on wine — when it comes to quantities of wine, anyhow — protest. Isn’t it more like six glasses to the bottle? We argue.
The waiter comes back around with another bottle. “I like your way of thinking,” he says. “I’m going to cap these glasses for you.”
Now, we may have ended the primis on a high note but the secondis disappoint at first — the seafood stufato, an Italian stew filled with prawns, mussels, clam and fennel ($24) is, to use the word again, meh at best.
And we wonder why so many of the restaurant’s dishes are stuffed into the same tiny white bowls, regardless of portion-size. (It’s a little difficult to enjoy this dish without sloshing some of the tomato stew onto your mat, your friends, and yes, that brand-new sweater.)
Grilled lamb chops ($24) topped with tomato marmellata and vincotto (a sweet, dark grape) are nicely grilled but nothing outstanding otherwise.
The skirt steak alla Piastra (cooked on a flat griddle) come with thin shavings of cheese and a side of cipolline agrodolci (sweet, softened onions). Again, the steak ($24) is nicely grilled with just the right amount of char, and the cheese and onions are lovely accompaniments. Not memorable overall but perfectly decent.
Once again, it is a pasta dish that comes to the rescue — maccheroni di busa with pork ragu, goat cheese and fennel ($19) is delicious, meaty and rich. The massive glob of goat cheese is a lovely addition.
Dessert is a must, even if we’re stuffed. We’ve spent the evening watching the chefs before us assemble various plates of enticing-looking sweets, after all.
The apple cake topped with creme fraiche is delicious — although we find ourselves wishing it had been allowed to warm up a little after being taken out of the fridge before it landed in front of us.
But it’s the fried dough that always gets us — they’re very nicely done here, just crispy enough on the outside, soft on the inside and perfect coated with a rich chocolate dipping sauce.
As hype goes, Spasso lives up to some of it. Almost everything is perfectly fine and some dishes will excite. If I do return, though, it’s pastas all the way.
Spasso, 551 Hudson Street, New York, New York; 212.858.3838; http://www.spassonyc.com/