Spasso: stay for the wine

The vino prices stretch your dinner dollar—but some dishes make you wish you'd taken the bottle home

Yet in every section of the menu, each good item had its inverse—like the pork prime rib that didn't nearly live up to the seafood volcano. Tittle smokes the meat to create a nicely caramelized exterior, but since it was such a large portion, the flavor didn't permeate the center, where bites were as cottony and bland as a boneless, skinless chicken breast. In contrast to the meatsa pizza, the mosaic version was topped with meatballs that tasted like dried-out meatloaf, sweetened with fennel and golden raisins—though we could hardly pick up on those subtleties due to the overpowering giardiniera, an Italian relish that caused the pizza to taste almost like a sweet pickle sandwich.

Some dishes almost worked, marred only by proportions that were a little off-kilter. The walleye fillet, for example, was eclipsed by thick slices of focaccia. And while the "black and blue" salad contained a nice mix of homemade fried onions, strips of skirt steak, and tomato vinaigrette, it could have used more gorgonzola to tie the flavors together. (I had to unearth a few paltry crumbles from under the mound of greens just to convince my friend of their existence.)

Other dishes were more fundamentally flawed. The fonduta, the Italian version of Swiss fondue, tasted like a blah béchamel with a hint of truffle. (If you're born with a silver spoon in your mouth, might this be the gruel you get when you're grounded?) The spinach and artichoke dip was so indistinctive that, had the dish contained truffle, I might have closed my eyes and mistaken it for the fonduta. As for the pastas, I expect a Bolognese to be bold, but this one was lackluster—watery, even—as if powdered milk had substituted for cream. The pesto on the radiatore had little garlicky oomph and tasted no better than something that came powdered in a foil packet. I looked at all the diners around me, who were eating and looking happy. Was it them or me? Had they eaten so many Lunchables and microwavable meals that they'd forgotten food was supposed to have flavor? Or had I become the person who couldn't go to a small-town diner without complaining that the chicken basket didn't come with house-made aioli?

As three scoops of homemade gelato melted together into a soupy gray puddle, I wondered how the dessert could have been so luscious last time, and this time so icy and unappealing. I suppose for the same reason I adored the lemon chiffon cheesecake—so light as to be nearly foamy, served with a tart lemon curd—and despised the drab chocolate torte and bread pudding.

Spasso's staff doesn't lack talent, but perhaps the restaurant's faults stem from talent being stretched too thin. Zander Cafe excelled with upscale American food because that was the only thing it did. Same story with pizza at Punch and pasta at Broders'. The more ground a menu covers, the harder it is to cover it well. Who has time to make fresh, homemade pasta when you're busy with burgers and steaks and seafood volcanoes? I'd like to see Spasso focus its menu to improve its consistency. Otherwise, the deals on wine, no matter how good, aren't worth the culinary misses.

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