I spent five years living on the Upper West Side, munching on great bagels, carving through first-rate arroz con pollo and enjoying nary a decent Italian meal (sorry, Carmine's) in my own neighborhood. But that was the early 1990s, before Tom Valenti launched Ouest and then 'Cesca. Now that the demand and supply for such cuisine north of West 59th Street has been established, Salvatore Corea—the chef and co-owner of the simple, rustic East Village trattoria, Cacio e Pepe—has upped the ante with the launch of the culinarily ambitious Spiga.
Corea, a Calabria native, hasn't completely abandoned his rustic roots. The environment screams ski chalet; dark wood fills the ceiling and floors and accents the exposed brick walls of this little box of a space. The food itself is hearty—big portions, rich ingredients, heavy sauces. But within that scope, Corea repeatedly inserts ingredients or preparations designed to surprise or stump.
Gelatin pops up twice on the list of antipasti: It accompanies the burrata (creamy cow's milk cheese) and engulfs a mixed seafood "pudding" that looks like something from a mid-century cookbook; cold chopped scallops, shrimp, mussels and clams float in a gelatinous mold surrounded by a cannellini-bean puree and fried parsley. It's more of a conceptual wonder than a taste sensation.
The cheeses have been aged in the oddest ways: One sheep's-milk cheese is aged under hay and another in walnut leaves; one cow's-milk cheese is aged under ashes and another under Barbera-wine must. No dainty nibbles, an entire meal could be made from these iPod-sized samples (three for $11), and they pair well with the all-Italian wine list, which is weak on selections by the glass but strong on broad, reasonably priced bottles. The range of cured meats includes the familiar (salami, mortadella, soppressata) and the somewhat unusual (culatello is a form of prosciutto, and lonza is cured pork loin).
Corea adds a sweet element to many of his pastas: The delicious parmesan-stuffed pumpkin ravioli tastes like cheesecake, the gnocchi with wild-boar-and-porcini-mushroom sauce is laced with cocoa, and the seafood maltagliati gets caramelized mussels.
Entrees are less experimental. The fennel-baked snapper still has its thick skin; a char gives it a nice smoky flavor. The steaklike duck breast (pictured) is smothered in dried fruits and a turnip puree, like some high-end Thanksgiving plate. Corea slips a weird-but-tasty fried cream ball onto the plate of the pan-roasted pork loin with spicy honey sauce, braised cabbage and crispy pancetta. And he prepares a traditional sea-salt-crusted bream that requires some explanation and training: Diners have to cut away the layer of salt to get to the moist, tender fish underneath.
As wonderfully exotic as this sounds, there were some missteps at Spiga. Desserts were inconsistent. The citrus-accented mascarpone mousse glided into my mouth like a perfect key lime pie, but the chocolate-and-licorice semifreddo seemed medicinal. The only credit card the restaurant accepts is American Express. And the space's designers have placed short, imperceptible steps directly before and after the restaurant's entrance; it's a Chevy Chase stumble waiting to happen. Consider yourself warned.