Dining out with Moira Hodgson

A Neighborhood Spot

With Universal Appeal

The first hint that we were in for something special at Crispo came with the prosciutto we snacked on with our drinks. It was sliced by the chef on a big red hand-cranked machine in the back and served with chunks of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and ripe figs. As we ate, a powerful aroma of basil and garlic wafted over from the next table, where a couple was sharing a plate of gnocchi in pesto sauce. If there’s one thing I can’t resist, it’s freshly made pesto, so before long there was a plate at our table, too. Slivers of blanched string beans had been tossed into the sauce, giving it an unexpected crunch against the softness of the pasta. As for the prosciutto, which comes from San Daniele, the secret is the hand-cranked machine. “The producers in Italy showed me that an electric slicer changes the flavor,” said the chef, Frank Crispo, “but you can control the speed of the blade of this machine like a knife.” It’s this sort of attention to detail that makes the food at Crispo, his new restaurant in the West Village, so good.

Actors sometimes wait years until they finally land the part that turns them into stars. (How many B-movies did Jack Nicholson make before Easy Rider ?) Mr. Crispo has been in the restaurant business for nearly 20 years, starting at La Côte Basque under Jean-Jacques Rachou, after he graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, and going on to work at the Polo Lounge in the Westbury hotel, where the kitchen crew included Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller. After stints at an Italian restaurant in Philadelphia and at Andiamo! on the Upper West Side, he joined up with Côte Basque alumni Rick Moonen and Charlie Palmer in 1990 to form the Chef’s Cuisiniers Club, a venture that dissolved after three years. Since then, he’s been much in demand as a consultant, creating menus, organizing contractors and designing kitchens around town. But never having hit the celebrity-chef circuit, his is hardly a household name. “Why Crispo?” my confused dinner companion wondered aloud about the restaurant’s name in the cab on the way over. “Will there be little tubs of it on the table, like the chicken fat at Sammy’s Roumanian Restaurant?”

Last fall, Mr. Crispo’s team of workmen moved into the long, narrow space on a dingy stretch of West 14th Street, across the way from McKenna’s Pub and Tequila Bar and Grill, to begin construction. The day was Sept. 11. The restaurant did not open its doors until nearly a year later, in mid-July.

If you’ve been around the Village for a while, you may remember the space from when it was the French bistro Quatorze. You won’t recognize it now. “I took it to the bare bones,” said Mr. Crispo. “I couldn’t leave it the way it was and have my mother come and eat here.”

Indeed, everything in his restaurant is brand-new, down to the walls and floorboards, but it feels much like an old New York pub, with low-beamed ceilings, bare brick, a mahogany bar, tungsten bulbs, a mosaic tile floor and French doors that open onto the street. The candle-lit dining room has polished wood tables, wide plank floors and a long banquette upholstered in floral brocade with leather seats. On the opposite side is a small wood-paneled room just the right size for a dinner party, and at the back is a white-tiled wall with a window that gives onto the kitchen.

Mr. Crispo, dressed in chef’s whites, strides through the packed dining room like a prizefighter, stopping now and then to shake hands with a customer. Every table is full. He’s trying to keep it a neighborhood place, someplace you can stroll into when you feel in the mood, but the phone rings for reservations all day. It’s not surprising. How many restaurants of this caliber serve $7 martinis? Or a first-rate hanger steak (along with a lovely, crunchy risotto cake laced with carrots) for just $15.95, and dessert for just $5? The olive oil he puts on the table with the crusty peasant bread doesn’t deliver a harsh slap at the back of the throat as it does in many Italian restaurants, either. It’s smooth and flowery.

But it’s not just the low prices (and the friendly young staff) that are bringing people in-it’s the food. That ubiquitous and often mediocre dish, fried calamari, is superb in Mr. Crispo’s hands. The squid is tender inside a light batter that’s not in the least greasy, and it comes with fried clams, fried parsley and a spicy, Moroccan-style dipping sauce seasoned with cumin, coriander, lemon and hot chili (for $7.95, it would make a nice snack at the bar with the house lemon martini).

Unexpected details enliven familiar dishes, such as artichokes braised in olive oil that are topped with fresh mint, toasted almonds and shavings of Parmigiano Reggiano. Shredded pickled eggplant comes with charred red peppers and anchovies, delivering a vinegary punch that cuts the saltiness of the fish. Pickled onions add another dimension to a roasted beet salad with goat cheese (when I tasted this dish, it was-alas-too chilled from the refrigerator).

Pasta can be ordered as a main course, but makes an ideal second course for sharing. The veal and spinach tortelloni are wonderful, delicate pillows topped with brown butter and sage leaves. If the daily special is ravioli with wild mushrooms, don’t miss it. The ravioli are large and floppy, topped with truffle oil in a rich, intense truffle sauce.

Skate with asparagus and tarragon is beautifully cooked, but its delicate flavor was almost overwhelmed by the grapefruit that came with it. The salmon is cleverly paired with pancetta and cabbage (ideal accompaniments for a fatty fish or bird), but it doesn’t have much flavor. Admittedly, I’ve been reading such awful things about farmed salmon (not the least that its feed looks and smells like dried cat food) that I’m a bit put off by this fish these days. I prefer the black bass, a thick fillet that’s tossed in herbs and bread crumbs and cooked crisp, with lemon and butter.

Veal medallions come three different ways: with Marsala, Fontina and mushrooms, with prosciutto and sage, or with artichokes. I chose the latter, because artichokes are one of my absolute favorite vegetables, and it was a good choice. The veal is perfect: pink but seared at the edges, with a lemony sauce.

Mr. Crispo does not cunningly make up for his low food prices with an expensive wine list. It’s international-heavy on Italian, of course-with many good choices at the lower end of the scale (I especially recommend the Deloach California cabernet sauvignon for just $23).

Instead of opting for fanciful architectural displays with his desserts, Mr. Crispo keeps things simple. Skip the rubbery lemon tart and dull tiramisu and go straight to the chocolate pot de crème. (The house sorbets, if you’re looking for something light, are very good, especially the vanilla and pistachio.) The pot de crème comes in a large white cup with a saucer. When you dig in, you find a surprise at the bottom-fresh cherries marinated in Grand Marnier. It sums up the restaurant: good food, good value, and always that little extra detail to make it exciting.