Friday, March 30, 2012

Spasso

Orecchiete with Shrimp, Crab, Bottarga and White Wine
Sometimes the simplest things in life are the most delicious. That is how I feel at Spasso, a bustling Italian joint in the West Village, while sinking into their homemade stracciatella cheese. The stracciatella (from the Italian "stracciato" for "torn apart") resembles shreds of milky mozzarella or burrata immersed in fresh cream. It is topped with extra virgin olive oil and cracked black pepper and served with slices of grilled bread, crisp but moistened with more fruity olive oil. The contrast between the creamy cheese and the crunchy, charred bread is an absolute delight.

Homemade Stracciatella with Olio Nuovo
Spasso, located on the corner of Hudson and Perry, has a classic West Village feel to it. It offers candle lit elegance with the rustic look and feel of tables covered in brown paper. The front is bustling and crowded, the noise level is buzzing and the seating is cozy if not a little bit tight. Service is perfectly good and the meal is paced nicely, making it a good choice for a leisurely dinner catching up with friends.

Such a dinner could start with a plate of freshly sliced prosciutto, machine-sliced thin at the bar. Or an appetizer of crispy eggplant arancini with whipped ricotta and roasted tomatoes, a delicious if not fully wholesome snack. On a recent visit, we opted to begin with a dish of cauliflower caponata from the contorni section of the menu. The cauliflower was tender but not overcooked, nicely browned on the outside and tossed with sweet raisins, pine nuts and peppadew peppers. A successful sweet-and-savory dish that was a nice counterpoint to the creamy stracciatella.

Cauliflower Caponata
My only complaint about the stracciatella, as exceptional as it is, is that although we were four people it only came with three slices of grilled bread. That means somebody had to be the odd one out. When we asked for more, another three slices arrived, and not for several minutes. Looking around, I didn't see any parties of three so I simply don't understand the choice there. The thoughtfulness of taking party size into account would really increase the enjoyment of one of their signature dishes. Or if that's too complicated, just increase it to four.

Orecchiette with Mushrooms and Marsala
Apart from the stracciatella, Spasso's pasta dishes really stand out. Once again, they are elegant in their simplicity and derive their impact from their execution, with perfectly al dente pasta and fresh, flavorful ingredients. The cavatelli with wild mushrooms and marsala was nice and earthy, enhanced with rosemary and topped with a dusting of parmigiano. I make a similar dish at home with thyme instead of rosemary; one of my go-to weeknight comfort foods (recipe here). Risotto with braised pork belly was rich, creamy and slightly sweet. Orecchiette, my personal favorite with shrimp, crab and bottarga is a subtle yet flavorful composition: the warm flavor of good white wine, the crunch of grated bottarga and the briny touch of fresh seafood all tied together and brightened up with a fresh squeeze of lemon.

For some, the pasta dishes probably appear small, sitting low in wide ovular dishes. They could be larger, but with appetizers I find the portions sufficient, and the well-executed pastas go a long way when savored slowly. I recommend adding a side of the creamy polenta with fonduta parmigiana, another of Spasso's most successful dishes, which is rich, creamy and cheesy.  If I could quibble with anything, it would be that the menu is fairly difficult for vegetarians.  On our most recent visit, most of the appetizers available contained meat or seafood, as did all but one of the pastas.

Roast Chicken
The pastas at Spasso are good enough that across several visits I have barely broken into the secondi. That said, a flavorful roast chicken is a pleasure, sitting on top of warm potatoes, vegetables and crispy croutons. There is so much boring chicken in the world (although not on this blog) that one often forgets how good it can be when done right. The vegetables and particularly the croutons absorb all those nice chicken juices, making for a hearty and successful dish.

The food at Spasso is not fancy or intricate. But it shows how much can be accomplished when simple dishes are executed well. The pasta is fresh and al dente, the dishes are interesting and the ingredients are fresh and flavorful. All of that makes for a fine choice when seeking a satisfying dinner in the West Village.

Spasso
551 Hudson Street
(212) 858-3838
http://spassonyc.com

Recommended dishes:  Homemade stracciatella ($9); cavatelli with wild mushrooms; orecchiette with shrimp, crab and bottarga ($20); risotto with pork belly ($17).


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