March 21, 2011 | BITE: My Journal
Sitting Tight at Spasso

A massive cut of pork tenderloin is a Spasso special tonight. Poto: Steven Richter
A massive cut of pork tenderloin is a Spasso special tonight. Photo: Steven Richter

        “It’s Italian. It’s the Village. Some guys from Choptank. That’s all I know.” Our friends are in the mood for no-fuss. “Italian is perfect.” The parking spot right in front is an auspicious sign, not far from Trattoria da’Alfredo, the late Alfredo Viazzi’s pocket size taste of Tuscany.  My ex-husband and I shared joint custody there after we split. It was too tiny for both of us with new paramours. Downtown fun meant the Village. Soho didn’t exist. TriBeCa had no name. The Lower East Side was scary.

Our server Jacob enchants us with his ingenuous charm. Photo: Steven Richter

        We’re a few minutes early. Our table isn’t ready yet. The four of us are salami’d into the wind break entrance at Spasso waiting for a quartet to exit. I’m getting grumpy. My guy’s knee is unhappy. We have to keep shifting and turning. Wherever we stand we are in the way, someone is arriving or leaving or needs to get by. It’s beyond intimate with the strum of good time squeals and cries almost drumming out the music.  In this spirited young crowd I feel like an intruder, but it’s Hudson Street reviving good memories.

        At the wide marble counter of a bar, two young women on a corner take delivery of bowls stuffed high with mussels and wings of crusty grilled bread. Hard to believe it’s a $10 starter, but so the menu says. I’ll have what they’re having, I decide.  I’ll need something good fast to escape my funk.

The backroom counter bumps into Chef Craig Wallen’s staging post. Photo: Steven Richter.

        Determined drinkers vie with firmly established eaters at the bar as finally we’re dropped off at a post in the rear, a mere few inches between tables. Now I can see there is another counter for eaters that butts into the chef’s expediting station, at the head of the open kitchen in the distance. That would be Chef Craig Wallen. He worked at Convivio under Michael White and Lupa before that.  It could be a night for pasta.

The classic Tuscan bread soup has a fragrant broth and ricotta afloat. Photo: Steven Richter

        Our server Jacob announces himself and the daily specials, taking a deep breath when he comes to the “F,” as in fennel.  And gets it out. We’re charmed, drawn into his triumph over the challenging consonant. Knees and grumps are forgotten. Bread arrives in a brown paper bag and he pours a saucer of very good olive oil.  I am not sure exactly what is so engaging about Jacob.  He’s cute and not exactly table trained.  I got over my crush on young boys a long time ago, sometime in the nine years I pretended I was 41.  Now it’s the ribollita that brings on frissons of excitement.

These are big balls. A half will do leaving room for pastas. Photo: Steven Richter

        Granted, not all the starters arrive at once. The tables are too small to park them all anyway. Well, we asked for easy and laid back. And they’re not all created equal. The fried cauliflower caponata with plumped raisins, pine nuts, and slivers of peppadew peppers makes a virtuous starter, maybe too chaste, because I’m quickly distracted by strings of house made Stracciatella cheese in olio nuova to layer on grilled bread. Rather ugly, like straight hair on a damp day, but the strands are richly steeped with heavy cream and luscious.  The oysters, a gift of the chef -- he can see us now too -- are freshly fried, but too thickly breaded.  I’m saving the mussels for next time.

It seems a bit meager in the bowl but maccheroni this rich is quickly filling. Photo: Steven Richter

        I’m glad we’re sharing, ignoring the house cured meats and cheeses everyone offers now. Half an eggplant arancini is enough for me, from a starter of three big globes with vibrant roasted tomatoes and a smear of whipped ricotta. Good enough but not as compelling as that thick ribollita, the rustic porridge of Tuscany, with black kale, soggy islands of bread and another plop of ricotta. Amberjack crudo, cool ribbons of fish tattooed with a staccato of fennel and splotches of sea urchin, is elegant and hip in this rough country collection.

Go with friends and order different pastas. Be sure one is carbonara. Photo: Steven Richter

        But then pastas arrive from a roster of seven, $15 to $20, and I know why I’m here and why I’ll be back. My maccheroni di Busa with pork ragu "grandmother style," with fennel fronds and pillow of satiny goat cheese, is almost too rich, as if the concept of too rich were actually in my lexicon. Thick strands of al dente bigoli noodles alla carbonara, flecked with pancetta and enriched with egg, seem elegant and restrained by comparison. Out comes yet another bonus from the kitchen, “gift of the chef,” Jacob heralds proudly, enunciating with measured care. "Straschinati with braised duck leg and smoked…” he pauses dramatically, “…Scamorza.” To think I might have missed this stunning toss of ricotta-flavored noodles with savory clumps of meat and the smokiness of a cheese that I love and almost never see. Like mozzarella, but more complex.

Ricotta straschinati with braised duck leg would be my choice. Photo: Steven Richter.

       I know it’s my job that requires me to sample the secondi -- seafood stufato, trout saltimbocca, roasted poussin, grilled lamb chops with tomato marmalade, $22 to $29 – but my work ethic falters when it requires just nibbling exceptional pasta and saving room for skirt steak. I’ve already eaten beyond the need to taste more.  I do sample our friend’s hefty cut of pork tenderloin on a parmesan fondue. I’m not sure he ordered it rare to medium as I would have. It is too cooked for me, chewy and a bit dry, but he loves it.

        The cherubic Jacob keeps popping by to ask if we’re happy.  “Are you loving everything?” “How did you like the pastas?”

Friends raved about the bombolini but mine seemed tough. Photo: Steven Richter

       Our friends are restaurateurs.  I wonder if the husband wants to hire the kid.  “I don’t go around stealing waiters from other restaurants,” he protests. But he’s actually training him tonight, trying to get him to stop asking us if we’re happy with each dish.

      “Just say, ‘May I get you anything else?’” he instructs the lad.

     I chime in with, “I prefer ‘Let me know if I can get you anything else,’ so we don’t have to answer, and, ‘May I clear?,’ not, ‘Are you working on that?’"  Jacob looks like he can’t believe we’re serious.  Enough tutoring for one evening, he urges us to consider dessert. I think we are ordering the apple cake with maple crème fraîche not to disappoint him.  But maybe it’s to please me. The chef decides we must have bombolini too, crusted with orange sugar. Alas, my sandy orb is oddly tough, but I dip it in the spiked chocolate crema anyway and take another bite.

       The crowd has thinned out by the time we get up to go. And it’s quieter, almost civilized minus the din. Oh, if only Spasso had landed in my neighborhood.  I would like to walk in for pasta after a movie. Not that it isn’t worth a detour. We’ve trained the waiter and agree we’ll be back for the pastas.

       “I have to diet for a month first,” says the wife. 

       I’m writing it in my book and reserving now.

551 Hudson Street at Perry Street. 212 858 3838 Tuesday and Wednesday 5 to 11 pm. Thursday through Sunday 5 pm to midnight.  Closed Monday.


Cafe Fiorello