The Main Attraction

Spindini brings the Grisanti name -- and talent -- back downtown.

Spindini, the South Main Street eatery opened in January by Judd Grisanti, is arguably the most anticipated of the many restaurants springing up downtown this year. It's the latest effort from a member of the much-loved Grisanti family, and in fact is just a few blocks from the original Grisanti's restaurant, which Judd's grandfather Elfo operated in the 1930s near Central Station.

Judd Grisanti grew up in his family's restaurants, worked at Ronnie Grisanti & Sons for many years, and with his family opened Elfo's nearby. Along the way he studied at the Culinary Institute of America, and has cooked and traveled extensively in Italy.

You might say Spindini is where the Grisanti tradition of excellent Italian cuisine meets the modern world of the trendy twenty-first-century urban restaurant.

The result is a good-looking eatery with great atmosphere and a see-and-be-seen scene and big-city feel. A focal point is the long bar that runs along the south wall — back-lit and embellished by colorful glass artwork — souvenirs of the space's previous incarnation as a glass workshop and gallery. Along the north wall is a long black leather bench lined with tables. Between that area of the restaurant and its other focal point, the $30,000 wood-burning oven set in shiny black tile, are more tables. It's a long skinny restaurant done in black, with good lighting, brown paper tablecloth toppers, copper artwork, and bright glassware as accents. There is live music in the lounge area at the front of the restaurant on many nights, but it is quiet and jazzy, and not at all obtrusive on dinner conversation.

The old-meets-new metaphor also applies to the menu, which Grisanti describes as antico e nuovo (old and new): The ancient method of cooking directly over fire, taking traditional recipes and giving them a modern twist.

During our visits to Spindini, we tried a number of appetizers, including Tuscan butter, a fondue of goat cheese, mascarpone, and pomodoro (tomato) sauce. Literally still bubbling when it reached the table, it was delicious (and free of cheese strings that can make a dish like that hard to eat). The best part was the accompanying grilled rectangles of focaccia toast.

The shrimp spiedini consisted of modest-sized shrimp wrapped in slices of pancetta so thick that the salty ham flavor completely masked the shrimp. It was served with a slightly sweet combination of white beans and roasted grape tomato halves.

Our favorite appetizer was the superb fried calamari — maybe the best in town. The calamari itself was tender, the fried semolina coating just right, without the toughness of a chicken-fried crust or overly ethereal like a tempura coating. The accompanying lemon aioli was just right, tangy with garlic and lemon, while the thick, slightly spicy tomato sauce too was on the mark: Distinctive, complementary, but not overpowering.

The soup and salad menu includes some Grisanti standards, such as Miss Mary's salad, the vinaigrette-tossed green lettuce and iceberg combination that here seemed too heavy on the vinegar. (I guess you can't be a Grisanti restaurant without serving this salad, toasted ravioli, and the buttery Elfo's Special pasta.) The oysters Rockefeller soup was a lovely creamy version with plenty of fresh spinach leaves and small oysters as accents. I found the flavor a bit too reserved, though, and would have welcomed a more definite edge, maybe a splash of the Pernod that's generally used for oysters Rockefeller.

The soup of the day was chicken broth with sausage, carrots, and white beans, the flavor created by the fennel in the housemade sausage. At both meals chunks of good artisan bread were served with a dish of olive oil, fresh herbs, and garlic.

The wood-fired pizzas are a point of pride at Spindini. We sampled the lobster, diced bacon, and spinach version that has become the restaurant's signature pie. It was fabulous, from the fresh-baked crust to the fresh tomato, mozzarella, and bacon bits, to the spicy mayo drizzled on top. The pizza was large enough to share; however, for $19 I would have liked the lobster to be more in evidence than the few shreds hidden among the other elements.

On to entrees. We had the lobster ravioli in cioppino (a northern California seafood stew), made interesting by the pronounced cioppino element. There was the red sauce plus mussels and calamari, so that the ravioli seemed like a strong element rather than the centerpiece. The ravioli tasted all right, even though the pasta was overly thick and the lobster barely discernible in the filling.

The oven-poached black cod was buttery and nice, with a pleasant risotto and al dente cauliflower bits. Brick chicken was a huge chicken breast, stuffed with prosciutto, smoked mozzarella, and spinach, and served with mushrooms. It was overly salty, though. The pork chop was a winner, cooked as ordered and served over rich mashed potatoes with crimini mushrooms in a sublime demiglace. I've never been a fan of gnocchi (potato pasta) but Spindini's were fine. The wood-fired grill really struts its stuff with the delectable whole rainbow trout, stuffed with bacon and diced potatoes, and baked on a cedar plank.

The dessert menu is not extensive and changes frequently, consisting of sorbets, gelato, and a few other items. We tried the Spindini torte — chocolate mousse sandwiched between layers of espresso-soaked cake. The gelato — I tried coffee and hazelnut — was sumptuous, creamy, and full of flavor.

The wine list is predominantly Italian and California wines that vary widely in price. Of the 20 or so white wines and 60 reds, about half are available by the glass. There are also a few sparkling wines, ports, and sherries. Curiously, the list does not include the vintages.

We found the service to be well-paced and friendly, with courses arriving promptly, and bread and water replenished. On our second visit there was some lag, but nothing major, and we didn't mind waiting for a fresh pot of decaf near the end of our meal.

A front patio should be completed soon and open for outdoor dining. Valet parking is available.

Spindini is a splendid addition to downtown dining, with a great atmosphere and food that does justice to the Grisanti tradition while not being shackled by it. True, some dishes are better than others. The flavors in the shrimp spiedini and brick chicken may have been off balance and the ravioli tough, but the lobster pizza, trout, pork chop, and calamari were excellent. For the most part, the food is well-prepared, and leaves us ready to see what else Judd Grisanti will be serving up in the months to come. 

Spindini 383 S. Main 578-2767

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