Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Chef Marisa Iocco Is Back At Spiga: Guazzetti To Bread Pudding

Famed Chef Marisa Iocco has returned to helm the kitchen at Spiga, an Italian restaurant located in Needham, and that is great news!

A native of Orsogna in Italy’s Abruzzo region, Marisa moved to the Boston area in 1990 and has spent the last nearly 30 years working in a variety of well lauded Italian restaurants. The first restaurant she opened was Galleria Italiana, which earned many raves. Since then, she has opened or assisted in restaurants including La Bettola, South End Galleria, Bricco, Umbria, Mare, Gennaro's Five North Square, and Scopa. Back in 2009, she helped to transform Spiga and that was the first time I experienced her stellar cuisine, including her sublime Bread Pudding. Last year, Marisa returned to Spiga, to become their Executive Chef, assist owner Carmelo Iriti, and transform their menu. For more insight into the mind of Chef Iocco, check out my prior Culinary Creativity Interview.

I recently dined twice at the new Spiga, once for dinner as a media guest and a second time for lunch on my own. Spiga is open for lunch Monday through Friday, 11:30am-2pm, and for dinner Monday through Saturday, 5pm-10pm. With the warm weather, Spiga has an outside patio and on the day I had lunch, the patio was quite busy due to the beautiful weather.

The restaurant is medium-sized with an intimate and cozy ambiance. The intriguing pictures on the walls all have a single word within them, and the pictures are composed of the images of pieces of fruit.

There is also a small bar at the back where you can sit, have some wine and enjoy some delicious Italian cuisine.

I like that there is an open kitchen area, with a wood-fired pizza oven. Chef Iocco was present on both of my visits, working in the kitchen, ensuring everything was up to her standards.

The Dinner Menu is divided into Guazzetti, single-serve pots of simmered stews of meat, fish or vegetables (6 options, in 2 sizes, for $15-$22), Cicchettis, Italian “tapas” meant for sampling and sharing (7 options for $14-$16); Insalate (3 options for $10-$14), Primi, pasta dishes (10 options for $19-$24), Secondi (9 options for $27-$32) and Contorni, sides (3 options for $8 each). The Lunch Menu is a bit smaller, with Guazzetti (6 options for $16 each), Cicchetti & Insalate (5 options for $11-$16), Paste & Secondi (6 options for $14-$23), Panini (4 options for $14 each), and Fame di Pizza (5 options for $14 each).

The menus have something for everyone, no matter what your preference, whether it is seafood or vegetarian, steak or pasta, chicken to lamb. Portion sizes are ample without being overwhelming. There are usually daily specials available which might entice you from ordering off the menu. A number of the recipes honor the Abruzzo region of Italy.

With dinner, we ordered a bottle of the 2016 Giacoso Fratelli Nebbioli D'Alba, a young and fruity Nebbiolo, easy drinking and excellent for pairing with a variety of dishes. The wine list has plenty of good choices for Italian wines, and they have numerous other wines from other regions too.

We began out dinner with one of the Dinner Specials, a Pizza with fig, ricotta and prosciutto. Chef Iocco states that her pizza is a cross between Roman and Neopolitan, with Abruzzo accents. It had a delightful crust, not too thick and slightly chewy, with plenty of toppings, a nice blend of sweet and salty flavors. It is a good-sized dish and easy to split with two or three people.

We then enjoyed a couple of the house specialties, the Guazzetti. Allegedly, the term derives from the archaic Italian guazzo, which literally means "a ford," as in a shallow place where you can cross a river. This is similar to the English term "wade" and it is said that the main ingredients in these Guazzetti stews "wade" in the juices. Spiga seems to be the only local Italian restaurant offering these Guazzetti and it is worth visiting Spiga just to try these delicious and intriguing stews.

The Cape Bay Mussels & Manila Clams Guazzetto is prepared with chickpeas, smoked Italian peppers and a spicy, cherry tomato broth. The broth contained a great depth of flavor, with a mild spiciness, and was excellent for dipping your bread. The shellfish was tender, the broth making for a tasty coating, and the chickpeas and peppers were tender too.

The Veal Shoulder Guazzetto was prepared with porcini mushrooms, smoky coffee dust and blueberries. Once again, the savory broth had an excellent depth of flavor and the veal was tender and flavorfu. The blueberries added an fascinating element to the dish, a touch of sweetness to the more earthy flavors of the broth and veal. The coffee dust was more subtle, with a touch of smokiness the most evident aspect. An impressive and unique dish.

The Cauliflower Cannoli is a visually stunning dish, looking more like dessert. The cannoli was fresh and crunchy, containing a creamy interior of cauliflower, almost a whipped blend. Even though I'm not a big cauliflower fan, this was tasty and interesting. If you love cauliflower, then this is going to please you immensely.

From the Primi section, I opted for the Timballo, made with crespelle (kind of an Italian crepe), meat ragú, and locally sourced dried mozzarella. What an amazing dish, such perfect comfort food! It reminded me in some respects to a lasagna, though the crespelle is softer. The ragú contained plenty of flavorful meat in a superb red sauce, and there was lots and lots of gooey cheese. It is a hearty dish so bring your appetite. Highly recommended!

I'll note that Spiga uses handmade pastas, made predominantly in-house, are there are gluten-free options. The Spaghetti All Carbonara is made with house-cured smoked salmon, poached egg, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and pancetta dust. The pasta was cooked perfectly al dente and the dish had a pleasing creamy taste, though no cream was used in its creation. The plentiful smoky salmon was an intriguing touch, especially with egg yolk flowing atop it. Another good choice.

For a Secondi, we chose the Lamb Arrosticini, grilled lamb skewers, wood oven-roasted rosemary potatoes and a chimichurri sauce. As their website states, most of the Secondi dishes are "kissed by the heat of la furnacella...what we call our charcoal pit where we burn aromatized wood to roast, grill and smoke our meat and fish." This is a popular dish in Abruzzo, where lamb is a common meat.   The lamb was delectable, tender and meaty with tasty blend of spice and seasonings, and the touch of smoke from the grill. The potatoes were excellent too, with a great crunchy exterior leading to a more fluffy interior.

On my lunch visit, I ordered the Timballo again, which had a different look from the one I previously had for dinner. It almost looks like the lunch version was turned on its side. It was equally as large and equally as scrumptious. So much flavor in a great comfort dish.


For lunch, I also selected a Potato Pizza, with tender, thin slices of potato covering nearly all of the soft and crisp crust. As you can see, the pizza is quite long and easily could feed two people.

For both dinner and lunch, I had to order dessert, because I yearned once again for Chef Iocco's famous Bread Pudding, topped by a salty caramel sauce. The Dessert Menu has 7 options (for $9-$12), such as Sicilian Cannoli and Torta Caprese, but for me, there was no real choice. It had to be the bread pudding. After dinner, the first spoonful of bread pudding was pure bliss and I have to admit that I might have let out a soft moan of pleasure. Every subsequent spoonful was absolutely delicious, a hedonistic treat which I cannot recommend enough. Great texture to the bread, a nice blend of sweet and salty in the sauce, and nice hints of vanilla. It was equally as good at lunch and I wouldn't judge you if you started your meal with the bread pudding.

And as a bonus, let me provide a copy of the recipe for Chef Marisa Iocco's Bread Pudding, which I've had since 2009. You're on your own for creating a sauce to top the bread pudding.

Ingredients
2 lbs. crusty, day-old Italian bread
1 quart heavy cream
1 quart whole milk
6 eggs
2 cups sugar
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise

Directions:
--Remove the bread heels and cut bread into small cubes
--In a saucepan, combine cream, milk, sugar and vanilla bean, and bring to a slow boil. Remove the mixture from the heat and allow it to cool and steep for one hour.
--In a bowl, whisk the eggs, then pour in the vanilla-cream mixture and stir. Next, add the bread cubes and allow it to sit just long enough to soak up most of the liquid.
--Pour mixture into a rectagular cake pan at least 4” deep. Cover tightly with foil. Place that pan into a slightly larger pan, then add about two inches of water to the larger pan to create what’s called a “bain marie” or water bath. This provides moisture during baking.
--Bake at 375 degrees for two hours. Remove from oven; let pudding “set” briefly. Cut into squares. Serves 8 generously.

It's great that Chef Iocco is back at Spiga. The food is diverse, plentiful, creative and delicious. And that Bread Pudding! Service was generally excellent, with one small issue at lunch that was quickly and professionally handled. It is easily accessible off Route 95, via the Highland Avenue exit, and it is also only a couple minutes from the Bin Ends wine shop. So, you can go wine shopping at Bin Ends and then have lunch or dinner at Spiga. Or vice versa.

No comments: