Down-Home and Off-Menu
A hit with diners . . . but with foodies, not so much
The 40 minutes we spent waiting for our table in Spadaro’s Route 1 parking lot were illuminating. Even though we’d booked well ahead, and had eaten a mediocre meal on our first visit, I wouldn’t have changed a minute Loitering outside the door, we watched several groups emerge smiling, animated, and flushed with happiness. Noticing our wait, and totally unprompted, three of these groups encouraged us that the wait was worth it, saying that Spadaro was their favorite restaurant. Two folks went further, declaring that, as Italian Americans, they felt Spadaro offered an authentic Italian experience. It was a critic’s reality check.
It’s not the ample rears of food critics that fill restaurant-world seats every night—it’s those of everyday diners. Sure, we had some deeply flawed dishes, but then there’s so much that Spadaro gets right. For instance, during our epic stakeout on Route 1, Rosa (who manages the front of the house with her sister, Rina, whose husband, Antonio, is the owner and chef), came out repeatedly to assure us that she was sorry. Then she brought an offering of grilled, olive oil-drenched bruschetti—the usual Spadaro amuse bouche—salted and accompanied by a garlic clove. Call us easily bought, but small (and practically cost-free) gestures like this are winning. We happily ate the oily, garlic-scraped slices in the parking lot, doing the “Philly stoop” to spare our clothes.
A steamed artichoke with olive oil, garlic, and parsley is one of a number of possible antipasti offered at Spadaro.
Spadaro is tiny (fewer than 40 seats), and its menu is unwritten, relying solely on the considerable sales skills of the Spadaro sisters. This creates obvious problems for diners, who don’t know what dishes cost unless they ask, and there is a certain amount of showmanship going on. For instance, instead of simply listing that mains are accompanied by salad, the Spadaros make the dish feel like a gift. There’s also an environment of Italo-American kitsch. Chef Spadaro is visible in the pass-through wearing an Il Tricolore-striped toque, there’s a mandolin hanging here, a miniature knight there, and the piercing tenor of Andrea Bocelli throughout. Spadaro’s strictly family-sized antipasti and pastas favor large parties: without judicious ordering, couples will be stuck with more food than they want. Mains are single-serving. Antipasti are not available à la carte, and instead, come en masse as a collection of small plates.
Impressive, but only a few dishes stand up to scrutiny. We were fans of the salami and provolone slices, and liked the cooked-until-olive-colored string beans dressed with garlic and oil (which also showed up later as a corntorno), but those cakey, industrial bocconcini with woody, mass-produced tomatoes were a crime, especially as our visits occurred in August. Mushy roasted peppers tasted jarred and a sloppy dish of gristly pork and beans felt like padding. At $19.95, with only three of the eight dishes tasty (we also liked a bowl of hot mussels), we wished we could have selected from a menu. We were also saddened by the wasted food.
The pastas at Spadaro are made with dried pasta, and each order easily serves four as a starter. Pasta Spadaro (described by Rosa as “just like carbonara without dairy”) arrived as a briny sauté of mushrooms punctuated by dry, irregularly cut, gristly pork. A simple pasta piselli (with peas) was closer to our expectations, even though the dish was profoundly salty.
Yet there were glimmers of quality at Spadaro. A whole branzino (simply broiled and dressed with lemon and oil) was definitely in the Italian spirit, and we also liked its accompanying salad. Here, lettuces, carrot sticks, fennel, and radishes were so lightly dressed (in oil, lemon, and salt) that their individual flavors burst through. Wines are offered by the glass, and we were pleased with a Calabrese Petelia for $11. It’s a cheap and cheerful white, perfect for a summer evening half-spent in a parking lot. While our guest loved his brined pork chop pizzaiolo (slathered in a tasty tomato sauce), our baby lamb was hardly a winner, arriving as roasted-until-jerky-like (yet still miraculously fatty) ribs, sans meaty loin. An undressed pork chop—and that branzino—are the winners.
Given Spadaro’s size, it’s not surprising that desserts are not made in-house. Nevertheless, a torta della Nonna (grandmother’s cake) was a tangy, satisfying, and ricotta-laden bite. We also liked the crisp, ricotta-stuffed cannoli studded with large sections of citron.
But here’s where my job gets tough. This is a restaurant thronged with happy diners, a family place with a come-on-in vibe. Tables are large, always filled, and—as we saw—customers emerge elated. Is it the Spadaro sisters’ salesmanship? Is it the huge antipasti and pastas? Whatever the reason, people love Spadaro, and it doesn’t matter what the critics think: it will still be mobbed tomorrow. I will leave you with the punchline, though. That simple (and small) branzino? $32.95. Pastas (made with dried pasta and weird, flavorless porky bits)? $14.95. And those inedible lamb riblets? $36.95. Caveat emptor.
Spadaro ★ ½
211 E Main St, New Rochelle
Hours: Lunch Tues to Sun 12–2:30 pm; dinner Tues to Sun 5:30–10 pm;
Appetizers: $14.95–$24.95; entrées: $15.95–$44; desserts: $6.95.
★★★★—Outstanding ★★★—Very Good
PHOTOS BY CATHY PINSKY