The best Terragusto has to offer is on display in its pasta neri: noodles made black with cuttlefish ink, which infuses them with the brininess of ocean water, balanced by the sweet, plump shrimp scattered on top. This dish is what Terragusto is all about—simple food, big flavor, built from the ground up. It’s the Mies van der Rohe of pasta, if Mies had crafted every brick himself.
Just as the food isn’t fussy, neither is the decor. In fact, the room is so undecorated that it has the look of a rush project. And that very well may have been the case: Chef/owner Theo Gilbert has been fighting crowds at the Roscoe Village location of Terragusto since he opened a few years ago. He had to open another location soon; people won’t wait around for that pasta forever.
The new space still can’t hold all the people who want to come in (it’s crucial to make a reservation, because there’s no place to wait for a table, leaving walk-ins literally out in the cold). But even despite liking the restaurant very much, at times I wondered why so many people wanted in. The new location isn’t BYOB like its Roscoe sibling, so that isn’t the attraction. In fact, if anything, the wine service is a reason to stay away. The servers push wine with the force of used-car salesmen. Rarely did ten minutes go by without somebody prematurely emptying a quartino into my glass or suggesting another round. And one night, after the pasta course (the Terragusto way consists of a four-course meal of antipasto, pasta, a meat course and dessert), a server took a look at my table’s half-empty wine glasses and said, as if suddenly struck by brilliance, “Hey, I know! How about you order a bottle now??”
How about you stop trying to get me drunk and wipe me clean? I thought.
Pushy wine service, boring room—you’re probably wondering where the place gets good. It gets good with the incredibly rich tortellini in brodo, a truffle-spiked broth so buttery I almost spread it on bread instead of spooning it into my mouth like soup. It gets even better with the smoked ham crostini, which exhibited a salty savoriness that lingered long after it was gone. It gets better still with the decadent baked polenta sporting a pudding-like middle (pictured) and the capellacci di zucca alla modena, squash-stuffed pockets of pasta tossed with sage butter and sprinkled with amaretti cookie crumbs.
The third course—a meat course shared by the table—never quite won me over, though. One night it was braised duck that was just slightly overcooked and not flavorful enough; another night it was steak, very nicely done but not worth the upcharge. So in the future, I might go à la carte. Maybe order two of the always-toothsome housemade pastas (steering clear of the boring whole-grain pappardelle) and ignore the meat altogether. And maybe, since I’ll be saving a little money at that point, this time I’ll actually order that bottle.