Spiga Ristorante Italiano

A famed Boston chef moves to the 'burbs
By ROBERT NADEAU  |  July 8, 2009
3.0 3.0 Stars

090710_spiga_main
THREEWAY OF LOVE: Desserts here are almost too pretty to eat, such as the Chocolate Trilogy, featuring gelato, chocolate cake, and a brilliant truffle.

Spiga Ristorante Italiano | 18 Highland Circle, Needham | 781.449.5600 | spigaitaliana.com | Open Monday–Friday, 11 am–3 pm and 5–10 pm; and Saturday, 5–10 pm | AE, MC, VI | beer and wine | sidewalk-level access | private parking lot
I've had my eye on Spiga for a while — even though it is hard to keep an eye on a place tucked into a back street. The eminent chef Marissa Iocco (Galleria Italiana, La Bettola, Bricco, Umbria, Mare) had been reported consulting there for more than a year before the announcement in April that she would take over for a grand reopening. When a name chef moves out to the suburbs, it usually looks like a retirement plan. Certainly most don't roll out their avant-garde stuff outside city limits (too bad — that means no swordfish pastrami à la Mare). And yet, just as it's fascinating to see how an experimental musician like Ran Blake takes apart an Ellington tune, there is an anticipation to taste what Iocco does with routine pastas and roast chicken.

As it turns out, she has been experimenting at the cutting edge of . . . mashed potatoes!

That's not to say Iocco has abandoned her insistence on making all breads, pastas, and desserts in house. The offerings in the first column are either flat and focaccia-like or crusty with a soft white crumb. They go right into a dip of white-bean purée, roasted garlic, and olive oil, but some should be saved for sauces.

The menu is divided into more courses than Americans are used to, with the pasta "primi" potentially doubling as appetizers for hearty eaters, or as small plates for grazers. Appetizers proper include a house pizzetta ($9). Our night it was made with crisped prosciutto and fresh ricotta cheese, so much of the former that it resembled delectable lean-bacon sandwiches. A stew of vegetables "caponata style" ($9) worked better as a side dish, since the vegetables — which will improve as the farmer's markets swing into action — weren't sufficiently stewed to make a coherent caponata. Sea scallops ($12) ran small our night, but the skewer had all the real flavor, with a sweet condiment of garlic, roasted bell peppers, and a frisee salad.

The most satisfying pick was an insalata of baby greens ($9), a pretty typical mix made extraordinary with a few candied hazelnuts, a dusting of pecorino cheese, and just the right dressing. The weak sister was flan of Parmigianino Reggiano ($12), an over-baked cheese puff with a nice salad, a kind of celery-onion pickle, and another frisee salad.

Pasta is Iocco's métier — one of her early protégés was Barbara Lynch — and the ubiquitous pappardelle with Bolognese ragu ($17) showcases it at its best. The meat sauce is as complex as sausage and the wide ribbons of pasta have the perfect balance of melt and chew. Potato gnocchi ($16), done in a brick oven, are another cliché made new. No one gets lighter dumplings, richer tomato sauce, or more excitement out of the season's first shredded basil. Lobster agnolotti ($18) were actually square ravioli our night — no harm done to the stuffing, or the thrilling sauce of tomato, béchamel, sweet tiny shrimp, micro greens, and crabmeat.

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