Submitted By Simon Hardy Butler, February 4, 2017-4:50 pm
How many chances do you usually give a restaurant to impress you?
Is it one? Five? One thousand, six hundred and forty-three?
In Washington Heights eatery Saggio’s case, the third time was the charm. Twice before, my wife and I had tried the Italian fare at this spot and found it less than exciting, with undersalted provisions being the general issue we encountered. On our most recent visit, however, things changed. And I’m not sure what happened.
But I’ll be damned if I complain even a little bit about the difference.
Saggio itself is a petite place: An oft-active, mirror-adorned bar in front sets the mood, while to the left is your hostess, who leads you down a couple of steps to the wooden tables—which are squished together like building blocks in one of those toy sets you used to play with as a kid. Orange hues and a rustic environment enliven things a bit, though when the spot gets packed (and it frequently does), you might be almost butt-to-butt with your neighbor. Good way to meet people, I guess.
Maybe a better way is chugging down some of the charming adult beverages, such as a light, refreshing J-181 cocktail made with gin and grapefruit juice, among other components. There’s a pleasant wine list that won’t incinerate your bank account, and water is there when you need it. So is bread, which arrives at your table with olives and oil to start your meal … a helpful way to begin. Still, what sets this joint apart is the unusual quality of items on its menu, including a large selection of crostini; the caponata iteration isn’t a plating marvel (it’s somewhat reminiscent of the lumpy chicken à la king lunches that Gotham grammar schools used to regale hapless tykes with in those desolate cafeterias of old), but the eggplant chunks have a surprisingly subtle flavor, and the seasoning is judicious. Topping that in taste value is the mozzarella caprese di bufala, a particularly creamy version of this cheese, tomato and basil salad that offers ripe, soft slices of the rosy fruit and is tricked out with oil—the platter’s substantial size may cause you to question whether consuming the entire thing would enable you to save room for your main, though you may decide such inquiries are immaterial given the succulence of the chow.
Yep, you tell yourself. Give in to munchies all.
Well, that may not be a maxim to follow regularly, though if you order the grilled pork chop, it might be hard to contest. Savory and robust, the huge, moist porcine portion is doused in a brown wild mushroom wine sauce that rounds out the dish; strips of carrots, broccoli, green beans and potatoes accompany everything, as if you needed more, and they are buttery, firm, a smart counterpart. Mundane pasta? No, thanks. Housemade noodles? Yes, please—and happily, Saggio has that on offer, along with the less-exhilarating stuff … the restaurant-crafted farinaceous variants are slightly extra in price, but who cares? They’re terrific, in particular the pappardelle, which showcases a grainy flavor that’s not always available in the store-bought options. Paired with this restaurant’s meaty ragu, it’s quite a meal, and teamed with a side such as the roasted fennel Parmigiano, a piping-hot ramekin of cheese and the anise-y vegetable that is crusty on top and (unfortunately) lacking character underneath, it’s a deal of considerable value. That’s right: I said “value.” Entrees are generally less than 20 bucks apiece, and appetizers are much less. Meanwhile, the serving sizes are immense. So how in the world do they do it?
I don’t know. But again—I’ll be damned if I complain.
Desserts are sly and sensitive: a zabaglione special, for example, is a dollop of the yellow cream, rich and sweet, topping a mixture of bursting berries, all filling a dainty Martini glass. Service is affectionate, perhaps a little too informative sometimes (do we really want to hear what zabaglione is? I mean, come on; we know already), yet everyone means well. That’s part of the reason why we felt the third time here was so successful. Will the fourth be as good?
I know the answer to that one. We’ll just have to try it and find out.