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Spiga Ristorante Italiano

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

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 | | 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.

"Secondi" are the most conventional courses at Spiga, including a special on baked lobster ($42) distinguished only by the excellent stuffing of crabmeat and shrimp. Bistecca of swordfish ($22) gives you a terrific piece with a bone "handle," so that it looks a little like a rib steak. It's served with a bean, onion, and tomato salad and a bowl of fish broth wonderfully infused with rosemary.

"Seven Spices Chicken" ($19) is semi-boned, so the white meat got a bit dried out in the oven, but the dark meat was fabulous with very good seasoning (whatever those seven spices are). A Meyer-lemon sauce and smashed yellow potatoes round out the dish — yum. The other mashed potato item is a side dish of "Parmigiano Oreo Cookie" ($4.50): whipped potatoes between paper-thin cheese crisps. (Actually, it's not much like an Oreo at all.)

Cotoletta Milanese ($24) sounds like a veal cutlet, but mine was a dark-meat veal chop, vivid with a bread-crumb crust and a crunchy salad of endive, baby spinach, and potato chips. Unfortunately, the chips were thin and limp. I think they were originally crisp and intended as a topping, and perhaps were accidentally buried. The only pedestrian entrée was herbed salmon ($21), a decent chunk of fish with julliened zucchini pretending to be noodles and bready, pointless semolina croutons.

The wine list is all-Italian and full of interesting things. My personal favorite was a glass of 2005 Sella e Mosca cannonau from Sardinia ($9/ glass; $30/bottle). There is some dispute over whether this grape is the same as Grenache. If so, it makes an unusually spicy, floral wine — more like a malbec in Sardinia. My pick of the whites, also from the great 2005 vintage, was the Riccardo Falchini vernaccia di San Gimignano ($8; $35), a Tuscan white with the crisp structure of an Alsatian pinot blanc.

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Related: Ristorante Damiano, Maria's Seaside Café, Johnnie's on the Side, More more >
  Topics: Restaurant Reviews , Culture and Lifestyle, Beverages, Food and Cooking,  More more >
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