When Frank Bruni was the New York Times restaurant critic, he dropped two stars on an earnest neighborhood Italian spot every other week.
Actually, that is a very unfair exaggeration. Sometimes he went a whole month without reviewing an Italian restaurant, and he didn’t love them all. But he loved a lot of them.
Spigolo was one of these, a pretty good restaurant that no one talks about any more. Frank Bruni gave it two stars in 2005. The review reached its 13th paragraph before Bruni mentioned a dish he liked: admittedly, there were many of these, once he finally got around to it, but they almost seemed beside the point.
Scott and Heather Fratangelo, the critical darlings who opened the restaurant, left in September 2012, with no explanation that I can find. But the restaurant is still popular, judging by the crowds on a recent Wednesday evening. And Spigolo moving to a larger space early next year.
The new chef, Joseph D’Angelo, cooks in the same rustic Italian idiom that Bruni described. The online menu and wine list lack prices (irritating!), but we ordered three entrées: all were in the high $20s, and as I recall those prices were typical. It’s a fair tariff for food of this caliber. A pretty good chianti was $48.
Two of us tried the chicken ($28), which the chef serves with cherry peppers, fennel sausage, and polenta. It’s well above what most neighborhood Italian spots offer.
Butternut squash ravioli ($26) had a bright, tangy flavor, but this dish seemed a bit expensive for a modest portion.
A Flatiron Steak ($29) was “good, not spectacular,” according to the guest who ordered it; he thought it needed to be marinated, to impart flavor to this lower-end cut of beef.
Spigolo seats just 31 (25 seats, 6 at the bar). Its vest-pocket size works to its advantage. One can only hope that the new space will be as charming as this one, a cute corner lot that glows with light on a cold winter evening. Halfway through the meal, it dawns on you that there’s no sound track. You can carry out a conversation with ease, with your normal inside voice. How good is that!
For those who give out stars, a restaurant like Spigolo is hard to rate. It’s better than the average trattoria that most neighborhoods have. But upscale rustic Italian cuisine is the most over-saturated genre in New York. The city has a lot of these, but they aren’t always as good. Spigolo is better than a neighborhood spot, but it’s not quite destination dining.
I never tried Spigolo when the Fratangelos were here, but comparing our experience to published reviews, I’d say it hasn’t missed a beat. If you liked this sort of place before, you’d like it now.
Spigolo (1561 Second Avenue at E. 81st Street, Upper East Side)
Food: Rustic upscale Italian, a cut above the average trattoria
Service: Personable and skillful
Ambiance: A glowing, vest-pocket corner lot