Spina is an off-the-radar trattoria on a bright corner lot in Alphabet City. Opened in 2009, it wasn’t reviewed professionally, but it managed to attract a 25 food rating on Zagat, good enough for the top 7 percent of Italian restaurants city-wide. To put that in perspective, Marea is a 27, and Babbo is a 26.
As Spina gets no substantial food press, I imagine its popularity is drawn mainly from the neighborhood, and it is easy to see why. The décor out of the faux rustic playbook is comfortable and inviting, the menu is inexpensive, the food good for the price, and the wine list well worth exploring.
Spina is on its third chef in four years (currently Joe Marcus, a Picholine and Café Boulud vet), but it is not struggling by any measure: the dining room was nearly full by 8:00 pm on a Tuesday evening. Nevertheless, we were invited to come in for a tasting (and did not pay for our meal).
The concise one-page menu offers various appetizers and salads ($8–14), pastas ($16–22), mains ($19–24) and vegetable sides ($6). With nine pastas to just four mains, it’s clear that the former are meant to be the restaurant’s focus. The work station where the noodles are made in-house is in the dining room itself.
A wonderful poppy seed focaccia (above left) is also made in house; they serve it with a soft, truffle ricotta butter.
The winter salad ($11; above right) was well above the routine, with shaved brussels sprouts, avocado, cranberries, apples, pumpkin seeds, parmigiano reggiano, and lemon dressing.
The unusual wild mushroom goat cheese polenta ($11; above left) was the best of the appetizers, well above anything you’ll find in the average trattoria.
It seems everyone has to offer meatballs these days. Spina’s rendition of them ($8; above right) is acceptable but not distinguished: veal, beef and pork, with a light tomato sauce and parmagiano reggiano. Still, it’s worth noting that we paid $15 for meatballs at The Cleveland a couple of weeks ago, for a recipe that wasn’t as good.
We concluded with a tasting of three pastas. From left to right: 1) black pepper pappardelle with wild boar ragù ($18); 2) basil malfati with house-smoked tomato, eggplant, garlic, and fresh ricotta ($16); and malloreddus ($17), a saffron-infused corkscrew pasta called gnocchetti with a veal and pork tomato ragù.
None of these will put Michael White out of business, but the execution is well beyond the average neighborhood trattoria. If you can order just one, try the malloreddus, which you aren’t going to find just anywhere. The malfati are also worthwhile. The pappardelle with wild boar ragù struck us as a tired cliché, but a neighborhood spot needs to offer some comfortably familiar items.
The 16-page international wine list is remarkable, with prices ranging from $32 to $465. A steady stream of high rollers must justify the higher end of the list, but there is plenty for those who want wines priced in line with the food. Wine director Matthew Harrell has made a specialty of the Finger Lakes region, but his eclectic tastes range from Slovenia, Lebanon, and Greece, to Austria, France, and of course Italy.
We can’t comment directly on the service, since this was an invited visit, but Harrell seemed to spend as much time evangelizing the wine list at other tables as he did at ours. He served us ad hoc pairings of several wines by the glass, which I assume he does at other tables, as well.
With hundreds of Italian restaurants in the city, it is difficult for any to attain destination status. Spina is certainly a very good one, and in conjunction with the excellent wine list, certainly well worth exploring if you’re anywhere near the East Village.
Spina (175 Avenue B at E. 11th Street, East Village)