Uptown and Downtown Italian with Spigolo and L’Artusi

Sorry for being “off the grid” there for a couple of weeks. Between travel and my day job, not much time to get to some good new places. I have, however, been to two Italian spots recently that are worth telling you all about. For those of you uptown, Spigolo might be for you and then for the downtown crowd L’Artusi should be a name that rings a bell. Two completely different restaurants and atmosphere, but while I am on the Italian theme it makes sense to take note of both at the same time.

Spigolo first. I recently went there for a small birthday dinner and was pleasantly surprised with the quality of food. I have lived uptown for ~12 years now and when Spigolo opened in 2005 I remember there being a decent amount of hype and it being very difficult to get a table. I never got myself there, but finally decided to take the dive as it is one of the few “known” Upper East Side restaurants that I have not yet hit. I went there for a birthday, but I would only suggest that if you are looking for an intimate experience. Spigolo is probably better served for couples looking for a quiet meal or a nice spot to take someone on a date. It’s a small dining room with a rustic feel and one of those places that will warm you right up on a cold winter night (there will be plenty of those coming up soon). I was impressed by quality and presentation of each dish, and would put the restaurant in the category of a small gem nestled in the chaos that is Second Avenue on the Upper East Side. Anyone who has walked up Second Avenue in the 80s and 90s recently would feel sorry for the businesses that have been disrupted for years by what seems to be never-ending subway construction. Spigolo doesn’t appear to have missed a beat.

For starters, the regular and eggplant meatballs are a must. I did not eat any of the regular meatballs but judging by how quickly that plate went from full to empty leads me to believe they were pretty darn good. I enjoyed the eggplant meatballs, which were topped with a sweet tomato sauce that was very clearly hand crafted and quite tasty. Definitely try some pastas. There was a special Carbonara on the menu the evening I was there and if I were in charge of creating Spigolo’s menu I would put this on permanently. The Garganelli with Sweet Fennel Sausage Ragu was a richer dish and akin to a hearty Bolognese. For those trying to avoid carb overload there are some other meat and fish options to choose from. I tried the Chicken Scarpariello which was served with sausage, cherry tomatoes and a creamy polenta. The chicken was juicy and tender with the accompaniments fitting in just right. If you were tempted to try the sides the baby brussels sprouts with pecans are the way to go. In terms of the meal’s finale, look no further than the Sticky Toffee Bread Pudding. It’s definitely sweet, sticky and overly indulgent but worth sharing with the table and having a taste, or two. … or maybe even three.

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Moving from the Upper East Side to the West Village where you’ll find another Italian gem in L’Artusi. I’ve been to L’Artusi twice now and  enjoy it in part because it’s one of those places that is good for almost anything. Dinner with friends, a nice date, a place to go for a business-related meal, celebrations, you name it. The restaurant is casual but elegant and the design of the dining room is very well done. At first glance, the menu may look simple and maybe even somewhat limiting, but start ordering and you’ll soon realize it’s fine just the way it is. Unless you are hoarder of pasta, I would highly suggest ordering everything to share for the table. That way you cover more ground with the menu and everyone gets to try a variety of dishes. A strategic way to go about tackling the menu is to pick your targets from each section: Crudo, Verdura, Pasta, Pesce and Carne.

I skip the Crudo because raw fish isn’t my “thing,” but others in my party enjoyed the Hamachi Tartare and Dayboat Scallops. Verdura is more my speed and the Market Salad gets my stamp of approval. It’s light and fresh, topped with walnuts, feta and a yogurt dressing. The big hit at the table, however, were the Roasted Mushrooms with pancetta, fried egg and Ricotta Salata. Everyone liked them so much we had to order another. We also ordered L’Artusi’s special appetizer that evening which was a house made ricotta cheese served with toasts and preserves. It literally melts in your mouth and if it happens to be on the menu when you dine there I would recommend giving it a try. The Pasta section comes next and the relieving thing about  L’Artusi is that there is some sense of portion control, so even if you were to eat one plate for yourself there would (or at least should be) some room left in your stomach to try other dishes that come to the table.  I truly do not think you can go wrong here, but here are my two cents. The Bucatini, Orecchiette and Spagetti were my three favorites, in that order (and take note. … we had a lot of food on that table). The Bucatini is prepared like an Amatriciana with tomato, pancetta and pecorino. The Orecchiette fits into my motto that pretty much anything tastes better when topped with a good sweet sausage as this dish is prepared with salumi, sausage and pecorino in a light sauce. Very flavorful. Finally, the Spaghetti. This is probably the simplest of the pasta selections, but in this case simple is quite good. The dish is served with a sauce of garlic, parmesan and chilis so that even with the simplest of preparations the pasta has a little kick to it. Pesce was next and our server recommended the Striped Bass and Roasted Cod. I chose the bass which was a light follow-up to the bowls of pasta previously consumed and served with tomato, cannellini beans and kale. I skipped Carne, but two of my colleagues ordered the Pork Chop and Hangar Steak. Judging by the little left on their plate by the end of the course I would venture to say they enjoyed it. Even after all of this some of us still had an inch of room left for dessert. For a seasonal treat, I recommend the Pumpkin Tiramisu. The other two we ordered were good, but a serious second and third place to the pumpkin. The Hazelnut Chocolate Torta serves the chocolate lover well and the Olive Oil Cake is best for those looking to try something new and different. I will say I was initially drawn away from the Olive Oil Cake, but after trying it I would say it’s worth a taste.

There you have it. Two short reviews on Italian restaurants located at opposite ends of Manhattan. There are hundreds of choices when it comes to this cuisine and I won’t even pretend that these are No.1 and No.2, but they are each solid meals and should give you a little direction if you are ever on the Upper East Side or down in the West Village and start to have that craving for a good pasta with good atmosphere on the side.

Spigolo, 1561 Second Avenue, NY, NY 10028. Phone: (212) 744-1100

When To Book: Spigolo accepts reservations on OpenTable. If you are planning to dine with them on a Friday or Saturday night I would suggest thinking a couple weeks in advance to get a preferred seating time. It’s easier with tables of two since the restaurant is so small. 

L’Artusi, 228 W. 10th Street, NY, NY, 10014. Phone: (212) 255-5757

When To Book:  L’Artusi accepts reservations on OpenTable. It can be difficult to get a weekend table at L’Artusi so booking three-to-four weeks in advance for a Saturday or Sunday reservation would be advised. The middle of the week and Sundays generally have more availability so you should have better luck checking a few days in advance. 

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