Figlio returns with old favorites
Do not put on your cheaters. Do not adjust your retina displays (if that's even possible). Do not log on to your Livefyre account to make comments demanding corrections. This is indeed an article about Figlio. Yes, that Figlio. After a three-year hiatus, the former Uptown institution has been sorta reimagined and officially reopened under the same name, but it is now operating out in the 'burbs. The restaurant's new brick-and-neon digs in the former Soprano's space at the West End is decorated with photos of breakdancers, mullet-wearers, and signs proudly displaying its new slogan: "Born in 1984, Reborn in 2012." Of course, this immediately calls to mind some other things born in 1984: TED talks, Burkina Faso, the crack epidemic, Sixteen Candles, the Apple Macintosh, and Katy Perry. In short, a mixed bag, which was the overarching sentiment regarding our experience at Figlio 2.0. But the goal here is not reinvention — it's revival. If you keep that in mind, it may help manage your expectations of a restaurant that is all about, well, maintenance.
Taking in the first impressions of the lunch, dinner, and happy hour crowd, Figlio's new slogan could also easily apply to its new clientele — people who have traded in their Emerson Avenue walkups for riding lawnmowers and two-car garages. The kind of diner who no longer hops on the 6 but instead gladly shells out for valet parking. Despite Figlio's move westward, most will remember it as the literal and figurative cornerstone of Calhoun Square, not to mention the home of one of the best, most hoppin' happy hours in town. How many post-work bitch sessions took place in its see-and-be-seen bar over $2 salty shoestring fries and sliders? How many lemon drop martinis were responsible for how many late-night hookups? We may never know exactly, but over two decades Figlio did the impossible in this town: It managed to remain popular and effortlessly relevant, like a gracefully aging starlet.
Though Figlio was, is, and has always been part of a restaurant group, the new Figlio feels a bit more corporate than the original, but that may be attributed to the newness of the surrounding development. Foodwise, it has retained many of its greatest hits, like the calamari with jalapeños and lemon-spiked aioli (still delicious, though it seems a less generous portion for the adjusted price); the tortellini with cream, peas, mushrooms, and prosciutto (made with the same locally sourced filled pasta and laden with the same four-digit calorie count); and the wood-oven pizzas, which have stepped up their game in the combinations of toppings (duck confit and figs, cured salmon and mascarpone) but were unfortunately sullied by lackluster crust. In a town that has so much outstanding brick-, coal-, and wood-fired pizza, there's extra pressure on non-pizza places that decide to put pizzas on their menus. They have to meet the high standard of sturdy, crisp underbellies and puffy, chewy, slightly greasy edges. Figlio's crust had good flavor thanks to the cooking process, but not enough oil or character in the dough itself. If you do opt for a pizza because you're just in that kind of mood, try the version with house-made fennel sausage.
More trendy-in-the-'80s food graces the small plates (now there's a term we never seemed to hear way back when) section of the menu: mac and cheese, bruschetta, and some ho-hum chicken satay all have reasons for being there but aren't going to knock any socks off. The hot artichoke dip, fried ravioli, and grilled chicken wings were all about two steps up from chain bar & grill quality, often with the dated presentations to match. Other times presentations were far more modern, even to the point of being cumbersome to eat, as in the wine-poached pear salad. Still, the nonintegrative components made for a beautiful display and felt like a steal at $7.95 considering the size of the whole small wedge of stinky blue cheese that comes with it. Get that salad, a basket of bread, and some $3 happy hour wine and you basically have a Frenchy picnic with a cheap, makeshift fruit-and-cheese plate.
The dishes in which Figlio tries to reshape the mold a little bit — like the terrine of candy-striped beets and goat cheese, or the beef short rib with tamarind and pickled mango — are some of its best, which is a credit to chef J.P. Samuelson, who had a difficult task in trying to re-create an old menu while still injecting a little life into it. At its heart, Figlio was always conceived to be an Italian restaurant, and what it continues to do relatively well is pasta. The wide house-made papardelle was a little on the thick side but had a lovely, eggy flavor that elevated the rich, rustic lamb sugo to a dish that radiated love and simple sophistication. The ziti with lots of oregano and that house-made fennel sausage was surprisingly light yet comforting, and the cappelletti (a pasta in the shape of little pointy hats), though predictably stuffed with butternut squash (another big trend of the '80s) and finished with fried sage, was indulgent and fittingly autumnal.
The other big draws that Figlio continues to keep a good grip on are its drink menu and happy hour specials. It still does the infused, house-made limoncellos it became well known for, and it offers an impressive array of aperitifs and liqueurs for a bar of this kind. Though the peppery bloody Marys were pushed hard at brunch, mine lacked any real complexity — it was more salty than spicy. I did appreciate the nonalcoholic refreshment options, including a sour and refreshing blood orange spritzer called Under the Tuscan Sun (or its boozy cousin, Love in the Afternoon) and an endlessly sippable salty caramel lemonade, which will be a hit with anyone who likes saltwater taffy. If you enjoy taffy and vodka (who doesn't?), order the salty caramel lemon drop, especially if you happen to be there during happy hour, when the cocktail is just $5.
Figlio has a storied past, and the diners who frequented it will likely continue to love it. Could Figlio benefit from pushing the envelope a little more when it comes to the food? Perhaps. But its team is smart enough to adhere to the "if it ain't broke" school of management, and businesswise, it's totally working. The restaurant was bustling at nearly every visit — packed at early lunch, lines at the host stand, table pagers required by 6 on a Tuesday night. So really, who cares? If music and fashion have taught us anything, it's what goes around comes around. And you know what never goes out of fashion? Happy hour, and Figlio still absolutely does a rad job in that category.
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