551 Hudson Street, near Perry Street, West Village, (212) 759-5552
Getting There: 1,2,3,A,C,E to 14th Street
Restaurant Review: Spasso
For a decade Portuguese eatery Alfama called the corner of Hudson and Perry Streets home. Their shuttering and subsequent re-opening in midtown paved the way for a new phoenix to rise from the ashes. Enter Spasso (Italian for “amusement”), a slightly more upscale take on a traditional trattoria.
The restaurant itself looks a bit out of place on the street corner. Adorned in white with a black awning, it looks as if it would fit in more seamlessly in Beverly Hills than in the west village. Waiting for a table, the interior feels just as peculiar- with two granite dining counters, smallish and cramped, not leaving much room for patrons to imbibe in the place’s spirits. But once seated, your worries are quelled, as yet another Manhattan Italian-nouveau type has again proven worthy.
Owner Craig Wallen’s pedigree immediately implements a pledge of your faith- his apprenticeship crafted from days at Lupa and Convivio. Whereas Marea feels like a destination best suited for special occasions, Spasso feels like where you belong on a sexy, Saturday night out. The energy of both the neighborhood and the clientele almost demand it. Fortunately for diners, the winelist is inexpensive relative to the rest of Manhattan, so it is possible to enjoy a nice evening out without having to set your wallet ablaze.
Our meal opened with a plate of 5 different Italian formaggi, served with paired sides of red wine braised cherries and chamomile figs. The cuts of cheese were surprisingly diminutive, especially at a cost of $30, but our small party quickly dismantled each of them- from soft to sharp. Similarly, the small plate of delicate “fried oysters” ($16) was topped with a lemon crema sauce and was a nice change of pace from our typical order of fried calamari, but again its size left us wishing the portion was larger. While there is perhaps no bigger compliment than wanting to taste more of something delicious, the portion sizes left something to be desired.
On the other hand, we were incredibly pleased by the size of the “pea & prawn ravioli” ($18), a heaping portion of fresh pasta envelopes draped in a white cream sauce and a sprinkle of tarragon. The inventive dish was brilliantly paired with the smaller, but just as outstanding “fusilli” ($20), topped in a spicy pork ragu, and a gob of creamy goat cheese. It came as no surprise to us to find out the pastas were all freshly prepared and hand-rolled, considering their excellence and favorable comparison to similarly recent restaurant openings praised as “pasta paradises.”
Undersized portions can be considered a blessing on the stomach but a curse on the wallet. In this instance, we had room for our main courses so we welcomed the opportunity to taste offerings from the evening’s specials. The “wild bass” ($27) was a deliciously crusted on one side filet, over a bed of sautéed vegetables, with a squeeze of fresh lemon on the side. The crunchy breadcrumbs paired admirably with the fresh catch, although the dish proved no match for the “scallops” ($26). Pan seared and served over salty chunks of pancetta and a bed of greens, the three oversized scallops bursted with flavor. Coupled with the freshly cured meat, the surf and turf combination was mouthwatering to say the least. The side of “seasonal mushrooms” ($8) was of generous proportion, topped with a sharp vincotto cheese, and was far tastier than the “broccoli rabe” ($8) topped with fresh prosciutto and chili.
With its tremendous service, upbeat vibe, and delicious fare, Spasso is a welcome addition to a strip of west village neighborhood that was in need of it. While it’s clearly made compromises in certain places as far as comfort and some portion sizes go, it’s one of those eye-catching dinner spots that you can’t help but wanting to experience. Although Italian restaurants of this caliber have seemingly popped up everywhere over the past two years, Spasso proves to be no slouch in its own right.