Although I love Restaurant Week promotions, sometimes eateries don’t live up to expectations.
Last year, a group of friends and I made RW reservations at one of Northampton’s most vaunted restaurants, only to receive some of the worst food and service I’ve ever experienced in my lifetime. (We ordered a half-dozen oysters as an add-on, and received five weak, watery specimens – and one empty shell. Our server rolled his eyes as he took back the plate. It all went downhill from there.)
Left scarred by this experience, I was a bit guarded when we made reservations at Spoleto, Northampton’s highly regarded and popular Italian restaurant. But the droolworthy menu won me over. Besides that, I was looking for some wine redemption after the miss at Zen.
Three of us started with the crostini trio: filet mignon with asiago cheese; grilled shrimp, cannelloni and basil chiffonade; tomato, fresh mozzarella and basil with balsamic. The latter was the best of the three – there wasn’t a ton of recognizable flavor in the shrimp and white bean mixture and the filet, served without any kind of sauce, was a bit dry. (I remedied it with a drizzle of olive oil.) One friend said she wished the bread had been more crusty.
Another friend went with the fried calamari. While was nice and crispy and smelled like fried-food heaven, it was a little bland without its two tomato-based dipping sauces (one much spicier than the other.) I stole a few tentacle pieces for myself.
My newly awakened carnivore tendencies led me right to the New York strip, finished with a Barolo demiglace and served with sweet potato gratin and mixed vegetables. I was not disappointed. The steak was sizable, juicy and encrusted with a hint of pepper, and the Barolo sauce, though surprisingly light, had intense flavor. The veggies were steamed to perfection and only improved with a sprinkle of fresh grated cheese.
None of us were blown away by the gratin, though. While it was layered artfully like a napoleon, it was cold and a bit congealed. This suffered most from the inevitable mass-production that goes on during Restaurant Week promotions. Though we’re all familiar with my carb addiction, I would have been much more disappointed by an overdone steak.
To be honest, I was really torn between the NY strip and the seafood fra diavolo, a whole mess of shellfish tossed with squid-ink pasta in a spicy marinara sauce. But that’s why you dine with friends who are willing to share. The jet-black pasta, a little thicker than linguini, was really intriguing. And it was virtually buried by a tidal wave of lobster, mussels, clams, scallops, calamari and shrimp.
My friend remarked that it was more like a cioppino than a pasta dish, for its sheer amount of seafood. The marinara was wildly hot, though. “I kept eating because every time I stopped, my mouth burned,” she said.
Dessert was plentiful – and chocolaty. The chocolate lover’s sampler incorporated a huge dark-chocolate dipped strawberry; a flourless chocolate torte (with a strong hint of coffee); light, airy chocolate mousse and a dab of fresh whipped cream. One plate could have fed three of us.
Spoleto has a great wine option – a full liter carafe (6 glasses) for $15 or a half-carafe (3 glasses) for $8. On the night of our visit, the carafe wines were cabernet sauvignon and Chardonnay.
We started by ordering a half-carafe of each, and this is where we ran into our one service snag. We tried to explain to the waiter, as he was pouring, that we wanted to save our red carafe for our steak dinners. Somehow, this annoyed him, and he banged down the carafe and stalked away. It was inexplicable, and unnecessary…
As the night went on, we ended up ordering two more half-carafes, which brought us to a technical total of two full carafes. Yet we were charged for four half-carafes, amounting to an extra $2. I guess that was a charge for labor?
Spoleto has an ongoing $20 three-course meal promotion, available at both locations: Northampton and East Longmeadow. It’s a good value.
In my opinion, Restaurant Weeks should be an opportunity for restaurants to shine, not to cut corners or make customers feel unwelcome. I have no doubt that the banquet-style meal planning and extra traffic cause stress for chefs and servers. I’m sympathetic to that, to a point.
But I firmly believe that restaurants can hook potential repeat customers. If you dazzle a Restaurant Week customer with your $20 three-course meal and spectacular service, they’ll consider spending top dollar there for a special occasion in the future. At the very least, they’ll come back during next year’s promotion. My bad RW experience in 2009 has turned me off that particular restaurant for good.