August 29, 2005
I didn’t want to start this review of Spigolo, located on 81st and Second Avenue, with a discussion about the Upper East Side, but it seems I must. We had invited two friends to join us (me and my chef—the guy I have been dating—I am just going to call him my chef, if you don’t mind) for dinner up there, and the friends declined to join us because it was north of the line of demarcation—23rd Street—the barrier between acceptable dining destinations and absurd eating choices. Sure many of us have certain “feelings” about this northern (nose bleed) area of the city, including me. We may feel it has little to offer in terms of serious culinary value. But my friends missed out that night because all that is changing. Now the people who live up there get proximity to the park, incredible museums, and an amazing little gem of a restaurant to cherish and call their own. They have Spigolo. Real estate values must be going nuts in that zip code.
Spigolo, which means corner of the table in Italian, is the debut restaurant of an adorable husband and wife duo, Scott and Heather Fratangelo, and their partner Joseph D’Angelo, All three met while cooking in at Union Square Café. This little nook is their dream come true.
But nook it is. Spigolo is tiny, with about 35 seats, and it can get loud, so at times you may have to shout to be heard. Bring paper and pencil and you can pass notes. But it’s a sweet little room despite the roar. It is framed in exposed brick and lit with the soft sunny glow of contemporary wrought iron chandeliers. A glass rectangle in the back wall of the room allows you to peak into the bright silver kitchen and watch Scott and Joe at work. While you are dining, Heather, the pastry chef and front of the house manager, looks after you with the sincerity and kindness of someone who has never lived in New York City. She is a former nurse and the caretaking skills she learned in that honorable profession have transferred over well. She is a perfect hostess and quite a talented pastry chef as well. But first let’s talk about her hubby Scott’s food.
Scott’s easy going menu illustrates a strong love for Italy, and bears the signature style of some of the amazing kitchens he has worked in—Union Square (where he worked his way up from pasta station to sous chef), and Gramercy Tavern.
His braised octopus salad ($8) illustrates his approach to food quite well. The technique is there—the little suckers were braised and tender, with just the right amount of chew—but the pairing and the seasoning he chose take you higher. The octopus are coupled with a warm salad of shaved radicchio tossed with tomatoes, garlic, and whole dried chiles that give the dish the right hit of bright heat. But then he adds one last element—tiny bits of cured, preserved lemon that shoot a jolt of sunshine through your mouth. Consequently, I could not help but lick the plate clean, like a hungry puppy before a bowl of Purina.
His baked clams were a bit too aggressively garlicky for me, paired with a sizzling bagna cauda butter ($8), but they were terrifically juicy and meaty and held onto the sweet salinity of the ocean. We also had the burratta, a special that night, served over crusty bread with a slick of Acacia honey and a drizzle of aged balsamic vinegar. This was a beautiful dish—a lush, milky puff of this cow’s milk cheese from Puglia, given sweet and tangy notes from the honey and vinegar.
We had a fairly late reservation, and as the room started to empty out, we started chatting with Scott and Heather (my chef worked shoulder to shoulder with Scott on the line at Union Square about 7 years ago), and were introduced to Scott’s Dad and his wife, and his Mom and sister. The family was justifiably over the moon about Spigolo’s amazing two star review from The New York Times that day, and pointed out the magnum of champagne they received from Michael Romano and the staff of Union Square Café congratulating them on their success. There were these big toothy smiles on everyone’s faces, and the air in the room seemed to get lighter—like it was filled with some sort of helium that was getting everyone high and giddy. We felt honored to be tagging onto their celebration.
Meanwhile, our own personal celebration of food continued at our table with the arrival two bowls of nearly flawless pasta. The house made gnocchi ($14) are shaped like oversized Chicklets, and are fashioned from sheep’s milk ricotta, not potatoes—a trick that turns them into edible clouds on par with the gnudi at The Spotted Pig. They seemed to evaporate on my tongue under the hot, rich cream sauce that was balanced out with smoky hunks of pancetta and sharp shredded radicchio. I was not about to tell my chef how I felt about the gnocchi. There are some things a girl needs to keep to herself. Scott’s garganelli ($14)—a ziti-like, ribbed tubular pasta—was tossed with a sweet fennel sausage ragu that was round, warm, and rich, but it lacked just a few pinches of chile flake that would have really made it sing for me.
But neither one of us had any complaints about the chicken roasted under a brick ($22)—a mind-altering, life-changing chicken that should gain the same reputation as Jonathan Waxman’s Roast Chicken and Fries from his days at Jams (and then Washington Park). A chef who can make a chicken that brings you to tears (of elation) should be given a special award in my book. It is such a humble and pedestrian ingredient, that to make it so damn fine is quite a feat. Don’t go in there and say, “I know Andrea said the chicken was good, but I want the veal breast or the lamb.” Have the chicken! Just trust me people. This brick-chicken will have you shuttling to the Upper East Side weekly. Scott takes this little bird and rubs it up with olive oil, and seasons it with salt and pepper, and then presses it into a hot sauté pan under a real brick (covered in foil) until it is squished down to about two inches thick. It is served with a skin so golden and so crispy that it actually crunches and sizzles in your mouth as you bite through it and into the juicy, tender meat. I was manhandling this bird with no shame—gnawing off bits of meat from legs, wings, and backbones, and then getting to work on the accompanying bread salad that the bird comes with. This is also a joy ride—a full-flavored, vinegary panzanella tossed with tomatoes, nicoise olives, and crusty-soft chunks of country bread. People, chicken has never been this good.
But there is more. Heather—the second (and quite charming and beautiful) half of this equation—must also get her own shuttle bus installed for her bombolini (these would be Italian donuts). First of all, the word bombolini is pretty adorable. And they look like they sound—fat bombs of utterly fabulous fried dough. They are big, puffy peach-sized sugary yeast doughnut balls, served with house made caramel ice cream that gets doused with a hot shot of espresso that turns the ice cream into a milkshake. Dunk those hot (watch the fingers) sugary pom poms into the cool, creamy caramel-espresso lake and prepare for ecstasy in moments. It’s okay to be aroused by food, right?
We were groaning with pleasure in our chairs as we polished off the last of the bombolini, but (thankfully) no one seemed to notice. Scott and Heather were too busy popping bottles of champagne, and toasting to their 2-star review to mind us. We realized it was time to go and reluctantly made our way out of the restaurant, congratulating Scott and Heather and their families as we walked out onto the dark sidewalk and hailed a cab to go downtown—home.
There was magic in the restaurant that night. The food was just wonderful—magnificent at times—and even in the places it was slightly off, it still managed to leave us happy because the food at Spigolo is so much the product of heart. When you dine at restaurants like Spigolo—places like The Tasting Room, Five Points, Fleur de Sel, Falai, Little Giant, Lassi, and many more truly chef-owned and operated restaurants around the city—you experience so much more than just a meal. You get filled with the joy, the passion, the care, the time, and the love that goes into your food. Roll your eyes at me if you must—you won’t be the first—but I think you do. There is magic in these places. And if you don’t believe me, have the chicken.
Spigolo is located at 1561 2nd Avenue (corner of 81st St), 212-744-1100.