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Dining out

That’s (almost) amore

Spiga’s Italian charms are hard to resist

Spiga Paccheri Amatriciana, in a sauce of tomatoes and pancetta. (Michelle McDonald for The Boston Globe)
By Devra First
Globe Staff / September 23, 2009

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Behind the chain stores of Highland Avenue in Needham, on a little turnoff easily missed, is a rip in the space-time continuum. Somehow a red Italian villa wound up among the Verizons and Staples and D’Angelos. Gas lamps burn beside a wrought iron archway that leads to a patio. Inside, in a high-ceilinged room decorated in terra cotta hues, guests are met by charming men with Italian accents. They’re here to ply you with food and wine. There’s a wood-burning oven, a wine bar, a soundtrack of Italian music, and an interesting menu. Visible at the stove is chef Marisa Iocco, formerly of Galleria Italiana, Bricco, Mare, and more, brought in by owner Carmelo Iriti in April. With restaurant sonar, Spiga is sending off signals that say “promising, indeed.’’ The diner receives them and sits at the table with anticipation, primed: Spiga tells us it loves us, and we believe it. We are ready to love it back.

The relationship evolves over the meal. First, there’s the honeymoon period. A wine-clueless friend, able only to inform a bartender she likes red, is treated like a princess. Tastes of this and that are poured from the all-Italian selection, and she samples, and they discuss, and he hands her a glass of something she likes a lot. The party moves away from the bar and sits before a snowy tablecloth; good bread arrives, with a dish of roasted garlic and olive oil, and orders are placed. A woman at the next table is eating dessert with her eyes closed, smiling to herself. Shortly, food begins to arrive, delivered by a waiter who waltzes by himself a bit to the music as he waits for plates. When it’s clear the food will be shared, he steps in and serves everyone a bit of everything, skillfully, with one hand and two utensils clasped together to function as tongs.

He brings lobster agnolotti, little dumplings with a mild seafood filling. The dumplings are a bit undercooked, served with small, sweet shrimp and a creamy saffron sauce. Something called “All About Mozzarella’’ is lovely to look at, a long, thin toast topped with hunks of white cheese, slices of red tomato, and yellow cherry tomatoes. It’s true to its name: The mozzarella is ultra-fresh and light. It’s pleasant, but it doesn’t knock your socks off.

The first real sign that hopes for the restaurant might be realized is a dish of fettuccelle carbonara that makes the heart flutter. It arrives at the table, a green bundle with a plank of crisped prosciutto balanced on top like a seesaw. The fettuccelle are wrapped inside leaves of Swiss chard. When you cut this orb open, out pour handmade noodles, silky and chewy, with the creamy sauce clinging to them and pooling out onto the plate. They’re laced with generous hunks of house-made pancetta. Iocco has always done a fantastic job with pasta, and she hasn’t lost her touch.

An octopus salad is a reality check. Did the creature we’re eating ever swim in the ocean? Because it tastes as though it never touched a grain of salt in its life. It’s tossed with greens, a few olives, crunchy potato sticks, and maybe a piece of fennel or two. Or is it celery? There isn’t enough of it to really taste. But the big sin here is the lack of seasoning: A few squeezes of lemon and a generous squeeze of kosher salt is all that’s needed to wake the dish up.

Perhaps the kitchen senses what we’re thinking, because risotto in brodetto - an Italianate bouillabaisse - is so intensely salty it’s hard to eat. The risotto is nicely cooked, in a zingy tomato broth replete with seafood: scallops, mussels, clams, pieces of fish, and half a lobster. It looks fantastic, and with a fraction of the salt it would taste that way. And, perhaps, with a different lobster: All is well till we get to the claw meat, which tastes strongly of ammonia.

A giant veal chop is nicely cooked, with a sweet demi-glace flavored with moscato and tarragon. On the side of the plate is a strange-looking green island; it’s an asparagus Parmesan tart, chalky and dry, topped with asparagus stalks. Lamb scottadito (“scorched fingers’’ in Italian) is three chops stacked vertically, cooked rarer than requested. There’s a bright pile of sweet-sour red and yellow peppers on the side, and the coup de grace: a Parmesan Oreo, Parmesan tuiles sandwiching parsnip-potato puree. It’s more like a picnic than a coherent dish, with different components to sample and enjoy.

Unfettered deliciousness returns with paccheri Amatriciana. The paccheri are wide tubes, like larger-than-life rigatoni, that flop in on themselves when cooked. They sandwich a sauce of tomatoes and pancetta, porky, rich, and luxurious.

On another visit, Iocco is not here, but the dishes seem consistently inconsistent. An antipasto of Parmesan flan is not at all flan-like; it’s more like a muffin, tough and chewy and dense. Free-form lasagna made with crepes, mozzarella, and scallops tastes fishy. A pizzetta is mysteriously lame, given the wood-burning oven in house: It’s puffy and bready, with a bottom that’s barely browned, and topped scantily with pesto, tomato slices, and goat cheese. Boboli, is that you?

But tagliolini are excellent, folded with mushroom ragu, salty fried capers, and pillowy bites of mozzarella. The contrasting textures and flavors make this a dish you can’t stop eating. Tender, flavorful osso buco short rib comes with a giant protruding bone, bits of carrot, parsnip puree, and Swiss chard.

Ravioli are filled with a mild mixture of spinach and ricotta, with a sauce described as “intense duck ragu all’arancia.’’ It’s far from intense - it’s actually extremely mild - with no real orange flavor, but the duck is quite tasty. And pappardelle are served with a gorgeous Bolognese, with an undertone of lamb and a harmonious amount of nutmeg, the spice that overwhelms some versions.

Trout is a departure from the menu, sprinkled liberally with black and white sesame seeds and served with an almost Asian, gingery sauce (and an overdose of pepper). What makes the dish compelling is a salad of kiwi fruit and pink beets on the side. It’s simple, but the colors are so pretty, the flavors together are surprising, and the crunch of the kiwi seeds makes it fun to eat.

Dessert isn’t Spiga’s strong suit, but the restaurant gets credit for going beyond the standard-issue offerings found at half the establishments in town. There’s a “chocolate trilogy,’’ which consists of a truffle, a pudding, and a gelato. The truffle tastes good but is so hard we can barely pierce it with forks; the pudding is delicious, like an undercooked brownie; and the gelato is topped with a long cookie and chocolate sauce. The dessert is much better than the cheesecake Italiano, which tastes nice but is visibly curdled; it’s meant to be served with a sour cherry sauce, but I think someone accidentally poured Robitussin over ours. Bread pudding with salty caramel sauce is a signature recipe, and it’s pleasantly sweet and custard-like. Minestrone di frutta, described as a consomme of melon and grappa, is instead a sorry excuse for a late-summer fruit salad - mostly crunchy bits of honeydew.

Spiga is the kind of restaurant you want to love. The staff makes you feel well cared for. The food is presented nicely, and it can taste as good as it looks. But it can also be oversalted or undersalted, fishy in flavor or funny in texture. When I first moved to Boston, an impoverished youth, my mother came to visit and took me to Iocco’s Galleria Italiana as a treat; it was one of the earliest wonderful meals the city offered me. I want Spiga to be just as good.

Devra First can be reached at dfirst@globe.com.

SPIGA

18 Highland Circle, Needham. 781-449-5600. www.spigaitaliana.com. All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.

Prices Antipasti $9-$12. Primi $16-$18. Secondi $19-$28. Dessert $8-$8.50.

Hours Lunch Mon-Fri 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Dinner Mon-Thu 5-10 p.m., Fri-Sat 5-10:30 p.m.

Noise level Conversation easy.

May we suggest

Taglioni with mushroom ragu, paccheri Amatriciana, fettuccelle carbonara, pappardelle Bolognese, sesame-crusted trout, osso buco short rib.

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