A tale of two pastas: La Spina & Sagra, Davis Square
My wife has been in something of a pasta mood lately. We're recently moved to the Porter/Davis area, and I've tried La Spina once before. There's been a fair amount of traffic on Chowhound about these two places, but I hadn't managed to set foot in Sagra until last week. Subsequently wound up going to La Spina later in the week for an A/B comparison.
First, Sagra, where we met a friend last Tuesday for a last minute dinner. There was none of the fussing that I had read about reservations, but then the college kids are away, and we did arrive fairly early in the evening (around 6:30 pm). We were seated immediately at a table in front of the large front windows which open up for a commanding alfresco view of ... Highland Avenue. Well, OK, maybe not the most spectacular view, but it does add a nice tough of light and air.
I tried a glass of the Colli Ripani Centauro, which is a Sangiovese. It's a cheap glass, and I more or less got what I paid for -- decent but not spectacular, a bit tight, opened up a bit as the glass aired. Bread at the table was some sort of curious halfbreed between the oily crust of a focaccia and the spongy interior of a Tuscan country bread, though there was something odd about the texture that I couldn't put my finger on. This was served up with a bean and oil spread which was supplemented with cheese shavings and was quite lovely. The three of us tasted three pastas: the tagliatelle con funghi was my favorite of the batch, home made hand made pasta cooked to perfection, with a tasty sauce rich in mushroom flavor and mushroom chunks. The ravioli was quite interesting -- nicely chewy pasta, ricotta filling with the intriguing addition of a strong lemon note, and a sauce with more ricotta and lemon, cherry tomatoes and basil. I've never tried a lemon ricotta raviolum before, the lemon does add a very interesting alternate note to the standard ravioli, though I'm not convinced it's something I'd have to have over and over again. The gnocchi al sugo d'antara is served up in a duck ragu. The ragu was very good, but the gnocchi unfortunately a little too pillow soft -- as in, no chew to speak of, less melt in the mouth than disintegrate into liquid in the mouth. Their chocolate bread pudding was solidly good (though I'm remembering this against the triple chocolate wonder at 75 Chestnut and Sagra comes up short here). The espresso is Lavazza.
By 8 pm as we were leaving, the joint was packed. We did enjoy our meal, though for better or for worse, I'm missing the comfort food wonderfulness of my old neighborhood haunt, Panificio on Charles Street. But the tagliatelle at last looks like a sure bet.
My wife and I had dinner at La Spina as a last minute Valentine's Day outing in February. We remember uneven food, though some touches of wonderfulness and puzzling service. On Valentine's Day, the mixed antipasto plate had nice olive oil marinated vegetables and salted meats that ranged between decent eats and mediocre cold cuts. Their gnocchi was quite good; not quite in the league of No. 9 Park or Grotto, but very solid, better chew than Sagra and a respectable tomato-and-cheese sauce. The roasted salmon was solid if not spectacular, as was the tiramisu. The wait staff needed to be prompted to bring out bread and olive oil and the wait between courses was puzzlingly long considering how empty the place was.
We returned to La Spina for the first time this past Friday night, to see if they had worked out any of the bugs. The place was almost completely empty. Despite that, they still had to be prompted to bring out bread (though it was a lovely, tasty toasted baguette) and the delays in between courses was astonishing considering how few tables were filled and how much wait staff seemed to be sitting twiddling their thumbs around the bar.
The food was a bigger disappointment. We started with a special, sold to us as fried calamari on a bed of greens. Turns out the calamari was "sauteed" not fried, and when it arrived at the table, it seemed more like it had been boiled or steamed, given the lack of char marks. The squid itself was just barely overcooked, so that the texture was unappetizingly rubbery. The sauce with the squid was a lovely olive oil and garlic vinaigrette, but none of the flavor in the vinaigrette found its way into the flavor of either the calamari or the greens.
I asked the waiter if he would recommend the gnocchi or the spinach-and-cheese tortelloni, and he steered me to the tortelloni. Too bad, since the tortelloni was spectacularly unspectacular. The pasta was not bad, but the cheese-tomato-and-spinach filling was bland and underseasoned. The frutta di mare with white sauce pasta dish had more of the rubbery calamari, two mussels that had not opened and were left in the bowl, otherwise passable mussels and clams, and all this was swimming in a veritable soup that tasted like it had been laced with the exact same olive oil and garlic vinaigrette that had been in the salad. Struck me as disappointing laziness to use that same sauce; not that I claim to be an expert on Italian food, but I vaguely remember learning that there are more than two sauces in Italian cuisine.
The delays were sufficiently disheartening and the food was sufficiently deflating that we didn't stick around for dessert or coffee. As we left around 9 pm, the place was still pretty much empty, and this on a Friday night when it was too hot and sticky to cook. Prices are a shade higher than at Sagra (portions are bigger, but the portions are of food I'm not too thrilled to eat), somewhat surprising given the dark underlit subdued family-red-sauce-type decor.
All in all, Sagra has elements of promise, funkier environs and some very good food. I find myself wondering what Gordon Ramsay would learn if he visited La Spina. I for one don't feel a need to go back to give them another try.
Had dinner at Sagra on Saturday night, after seeing "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" which was quite possibly the worst movie I have seen in 10 years. I felt like I needed a bath, something comforting to cleanse me of the ick of that unredeeming, depressing film.
So we went to Sagra - young-ish crowd -
Couple of impressions:
- Is it a sports bar or a restaurant? The TVs really draw your attention no matter where you sit throughout the place.
- Is it amateur night? What is up with the heat lamps inside the dining room? Hear no evil, see no evil - I know they are used, but they almost feature them!
- Is it a dance club? What is up with the DJ stand?
- Is it good food? It's not bad - the arancini were warm, gooey, ok tomato sauce, could have been warmer (These incidentally did not pay a visit to the heat lamp.) Salad (I forget details) was decent. Tagliatelle with mushroom ragu was seemingly homemade pasta and a good mix of most portobello slices.
I was not too jazzed about it. Sagra seems like it cannot decide what it wants to be - that might not be a bad thing necessarily, especially given the clientele. It will surely draw crowds from colleges where the gals want a "fancy" night out and the guys still want to be able to watch the game. Of course, the movie may have influenced my opinion more than I realize.
re: Bob Dobalina
I haven't been in a while but I recall the food was better than just okay -- the thin-crust pizzas, the fried olives, the creamy croquettes. Sad to hear it was very "meh" for you.
Regarding your other observations I assume that the owners of Sagra have made a decision to hit all of these bases (sports bar, dance club, neighborhood dining, Tufts kid spot, etc., etc.) to pay the bills. At least they are not *also* doing Irish pub, meat-market, take-out sushi -- imagine the permutations we could come up with.
All that said, I would like to revisit soon. The mezzaluna potatoes are really great comfort food.
I think one of the problems is that Sagra inherited the space from 400 Highland, which was pretty schizoid about what it was. To Sagra's credit, they got rid of the bar and TV on the upper level. I find that I can ignore the lower level TVs (except during the post-season baseball this fall). They didn't replace the heat lamps, and these are probably needed because the kitchen is downstairs and the food is run upstairs. If you're in the right mood, the Tufts DJs (late night) can be fun.
As for food, I agree with yumyum about the fried food--the fried olives, croquettes, and arancini are lovely. I also like the pizza (my favorite is the margherita with fresh mozzarella). The pork two ways (ribs and sausage) and the steak (with roasted potatoes that are almost as good as the mezzalunas) are also tasty.
re: Bob Dobalina
Bob, I haven't been too jazzed about it, either, and have made numerous visits in the hopes that something would really make me want to return. The food is just ok, as is the service (which has improved greatly since they first opened, but still is somewhat uneven). And I totally agree about the heat lamps.
ps. thanks for the heads up about the movie -- for some reason it was on my "to see" list. . .
Just wanted to add to the ongoing Spina reviews. Wife and I went to Spina this summer and had a great meal. The antipasto plate was tasty although one of the cheeses wasn't anything special. Spinach cannelloni was fantastic - good balance between spinach and cheese filling, not overpowered by sauce, yummy. I had the bisteca which was a bit overdone (I asked for med. rare, it came just shy of well done) but the tomato sauce with addition of fresh tomatoes and thyme was very satisfying. We passed on dessert this time. Part of what made the meal nice was the fact that we were able to be seated right away, we weren't packed in next to another table and the waiter was friendly and attentive.
With this in mind, we went back last Friday. It was a bit more crowded but we still sat down right away. It was a bit louder and the conversations from the tables near and next to us were a bit overpowering. I think the waitress was new because she was a bit slow, unsure of herself and we had to ask for silverware and bread plate for one of us. For apps we had the calamari which was supposed to come with banana peppers but didn't. It was good but nothing special. I had the veal saltimboca with homemade pasta. The portion was rather small but rather tasty. The past was very good and dressed just with the sauce from the saltimboca. My wife had a special - amberjack with broccoli rabe. The fish was cooked a touch too well done. It was covered in some garlic lemon which was a bit burnt and bitter. The broccoli rabe was a little overcooked too. We had the special dessert of the night - pumpkin ice cream served in a mini, frozen pumpkin. That was nice but could have used a little spice. I had a glass of Chardonnay with dinner (can't remember name) which was mediocre.
So this last visit was not as enjoyable as the first time but I'd still go back especially if there's a wait at Sagra. BTW, Antonia's, IMHO, serves up standard but well executed Italian food. It's a nice, casual place for a date (when you're not trying to impress). I also want to add that Mike's Pizza still serves up good "fast food" Italian. I think it's the perfect place to go if you're craving Italian food, a beer and don't want to spend much more than a 10 spot, aka bachelor night dinner.
just had dinner at la spina with some friends tonight. i absolutely plan on going back. the four of us split the antipasto platter which was not spectacular but solid. the entree i had (fruitti de mare with linguini) was wonderful. the pasta was cooked properly and the shellfish and red sauce balanced and well seasoned. desserts were unremarkable. i'm looking forwatd to going back and trying other dishes.
compared to the two meals i've had at sagra (where the service was awful and the food was little better) and the handful of times i've been to antonia's, this place is definitely the best italian food in davis.
Well, we didn't wait that long to go back to La Spina. Went on Sat. night. A little busier (marginally but we got there early too) than before (this may be attributable to the college crowd being back over the long weekend) with the staff somewhat more organized. The owner/chef (don't know her name) was more visible and less audible (the first time we were there we could hear her yelling all the time...funny but unprofessional). Food was better than before but definitely not the best Italian place around. I had the eggplant ravioli which was good but couldn't taste a lot of the eggplant due to the sauce and I thought the ravioli was too thick. Edible for sure but nothing special. Wife was craving lasagna. They didn't have it even though we were one of the first patrons there...they couldn't have run out. I just think the chef didn't make any and forgot to tell the waitstaff. So she ordered the cannelloni. Said it was ok but really wanted lasagna. Got a bottle of Barbera A'lba...went down easy. Their bread is sourced from Iggy's...love their bread. Skipped on the dessert. All in all a better experience than previous visits but they still need work and the owner needs to do a better job to get the word out otherwise they'll fold like all the other previous occupants of that spot.
PS: They have a couple of little tables outside the front entrance for outdoor eating.
Next up Sagra...
I'm glad you enjoyed the tagliatelle con funghi at Sagra. I had it a couple of weeks ago and found it pretty unremarkable. The pasta was nicely cooked, but the sauce could have used something more--an herb, perhaps--to zip it up. We've had better luck with the pizzas at Sagra; I particularly have enjoyed their white pizza. I agree with yumyum that the service is still sadly unprofessional, however.
DH and I have wanted to try La Spina, but on a recent Friday night at around 7:30, there was absolutely no one in the place, which doesn't seem to be a good sign! Don't know if I'm being overly cautious, but I wonder about the freshness of the food if there's so little turnover.
Just wanted to add to the recent Sagra thread. A friend and I popped in this week for a light supper and it was a very mixed experience. The service, while sweet and well-meaning, was just not up to snuff. Our hostess took our drink order and couldn't really speak to the wines. At one point she said "I don't know, I'm just 20 years old. I hope I find out some day!" when we asked the differences between the 2 prosecco's on offer. I actually appreciated her honesty but she didn't offer to find out more. When we inquired about the chalkboard wine specials (as instructed on the menu) she brought us two small glasses of something to try. It was terrible, but she didn't know the name, nor was it listed on the board. Needless to say, we selected a different bottle off the menu.
We got the good bread and some very good olive oil, but none of the bean spread we were offered last time. The fritto mixto appetizer is as good as ever. They REALLY fry well ... the croquettes di latte, stuffed olives, calamari and mezzaluna potatoes were delicious. Even the arancini, which I didn't enjoy last time, was very good. There is more than enough to share, and probably too much, although we ate it all.
We shared a halibut special with spinach gnocchi. This was very mediocre -- the gnocchi was mushy although tasty, and the fish was overcooked. Shame, as it was a nice piece of fish. I think it had been sitting at the pass for a while, even though our hostess/server didn't appear busy.
It was quite a lot of food and drink for $50/pp before tip, but sadly not as good as it could be. I hope they continue to address service concerns. You can't hire Tufts kids and pull off a professional dining experience. Not that it seems to be hurting biz too much ... by 9:30 when we left the place was full. I even got to shake hands with the Mayor again.
Thanks for the write-up Dr.JimBob. We were debating on whether we should go back to either of these places again. It's been a while since we had our first and only experiences at both of these places. I think we'll hold off on La Spina for a while longer. We'll give Sagra another shot.