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Crispo - Awful food. What happened?

So I was super excited to go to Crispo, having read all the buzz about it on the board. I'm a huge Lupa fan, and have been looking for new Italian joints to go to in Manhattan. Especially more so since I had just gotten back from living in Italy.

I really hate to say this, but given the buzz about this place on the board, I was actually shocked at how bad the food was (Maybe there are two Crispos, and they ment the other one, my friend said)

I went with two friends, and we were seated at about 10:30.

We ordered three appetizers:

Risotto Balls, which were fried, not baked, that came with an awful marinara sauce for dipping. All of us commented that if you had given them to us blindfolded, we would have thought we were eating frozen mozzarella sticks and dipping sauce from a diner.

Prosciutto, Polenta, and Fresh Mozzarella, which came out looking great. But the heat from the polenta had already started to cook the prosciutto (it didn't say on the menu it was supposed to be prosciutto cotto) leaving it somewhere in between raw and cooked, and rather unpleasant. This wouldn't have been so bad if the polenta hadn't been a complete watery mess, leaving it with no flavor at all what-so-ever.

The arugula, ceci, and ricotta salata salad was something that had to be hard to mess up, but it was also pretty awful. It was left completely bone dry, until you got to the bottom of the salad, where all of the oil and lemon juice had been hidden in a huge blob at the bottom of the plate. I found it hidden down there way too late to enjoy the dish, as almost everything was gone already at that point.

No fear, I said, I came here for the pasta, and the pasta will not disappoint!

Well, it did. Big time.

First off, the pasta portions were huge. They aren't meant as first courses, it would appear, but rather as main courses. So that was the first turn off. I understand that lots of people like to have pasta as a main course, I'm American and I do also, but if this is supposed to be a serious Italian restaurant, that isn't that way it should be done. Especially when your main courses are labeled "Secondi" on your menu.

I had the Butternut Tortelloni with Roasted Chestnuts. This looked and smelled wonderful, but in the mouth just didn't work well. I expected the dish to be a nice mix of sweet and savory, but the chestnuts were just SO sweet they overpowered the whole dish, making it seem more like a dessert. I could only eat about half of it before I had to stop.

My friend got the Bucatini all'Amatriciana (spelled wrong on their menu. Not a huge deal, but you know, just saying). This was the best pasta of the night, but given the circumstances that really isn't saying much. I have high standards for this dish, with the one at Lupa being one of my favorite things to eat of all time. So when you serve this not that far away, and $5 more expensive than at Lupa, you better know what you're doing.

The guanchiale they used was fantastic, but the what should be the driving force of the dish, the thick tomato sauce, was flavorless, and overpowered by the chili pepper. The cheese that came with the pasta grated on top even tasted funky, and I mean funky in a out of a jar grated cheese kind of way. And yes, this was the best pasta dish of the night.

My girlfriend got the Carbonara, which was easily the worst of the night, if not the worst Carbonara I've ever had. She couldn't even eat it (and she's not half as picky as I am), and just had them wrap it up to take home. Wet noodles in egg is about the best way I can describe it. No flavor, no seasoning, just noodles in egg. Ehck.

We did order one secondo to share, the seared duck with figs and port, which was actually really good. Simple, cooked well, and to the point. Really enjoyed it, though at this point, I was just happy I could stomach eating it.

We skipped dessert at this point, and just went straight to coffee, and called it a night.

The service was fantastic, and I liked the whole rustic/nouveau (sp?) mix of the decor, though I thought the music selection was pretty bad (cheesy 80's dance music just didn't fit the atmosphere. We laughed a few times at the music that came on)

Oh, and a small, and this is totally personal, complaint about the wine list though. When I'm eating Italian, I want a nice, large selection of Italian wines from all over Italy, and I felt like the list at Crispo was too much of a mix of New and Old World.

I also hate it when restaurants group their wine lists into "Light" "Medium" and "Full" Bodied sections, instead of by country and region, making it impossible to find something you want if you're looking for a specific varietal, or region of production. This is totally personal though, I realize not everyone is as into Italian wines as I am, and I'm not letting this make or break the restaurant for me.

So what happened? Did I go on a really off night, or are their others out there who agree with me that this place is over rated? I really wanted to like Crispo, but with higher prices, bad pasta, and a worse wine selection that Lupa, I can't really see a reason to go back again.

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  1. Since you liked some of the dishes, characterizing your experience as "awful" seems a little strong. I too have been to Italy, but I don't expect to have the same experience at Crispo as I do there. I don't think Crispo is trying to be authentic in the way of a Lupa. It's just good food in its own right. Different strokes, I guess.

    13 Replies
    1. re: Lucia

      Yes Lucia, I tend to agree with you.
      I have been there too many wonderful times (and I am one obnoxiously fussy and finicky person!)
      COrrico, I am truly disappointed by your negative experience and certainly believe every word of what you say.
      You didn't say what night you went and I tend to think it might have been a Saturday night because of your 10:30 rez but actually I don't know, but if so, that might be a factor.
      I also agree that the music stinks as well as the noise level which is considerable and annoying. For me to constantly go back with both of these negatives says that for me the food, so far, has been superb, not just good, superb.

      1. re: idia

        Why should it matter what night COrrico went to Crispo? Or even at what hour.

        We often dine on Sunday evenings, which is the night many executive chefs are not in the kitchen, and in really excellent restaurants -- whether they are upscale, more moderately-priced, or inexpensive -- the food still shines. So, in my view, for a restaurant to be considered excellent, it should be in top form regardless of when you dine.

        1. re: idia

          I can't say much more than idia has already said, as I agree completely, but I will add that in all my dinners at Crispo, the only dishes I have had of the ones you mention are the duck (which you agree is wonderful) and the carbonara, which at least when I have had it, was not wet, and was well seasoned. As to the complaint that the pasta portions are too large, this is typical of Italian restaurants in the US, where most people order pasta as a main course. I generally do not, and at Crispo I ask for a half order as an appetizer, which they willingly provide. I too hate the wine lists that that don't list by region, but this is fairly typical these days. Even Eleven Madison Park divides its huge list by type of grape, which is really frustrating. Does it stop me from dining there? Absolutely not. Finally I will mention that I also like Lupa and have a reservation there in two weeks (getting a res there is a pain), and IMO Crispo and Lupa are equal in food quality. It annoys me that Lupa will not serve a half order of pasta as appetizer, but I can live with that.

        2. re: Lucia

          It sounded to me like the only dish COrrico liked was the duck. I've had Crispo on my list of places to try - and probably will just to judge for myself. I have to say, that meal sounds pretty lousy to me.

          I've never been to Italy, but do love the food at Lupa.

          1. re: MMRuth

            Like you, MMRuth, I've had Crispo on my "go to" list for a long time. However, despite the great deal of praise it receives, it's the occasional negative reports like COrrico's (he's new to me), but more especially from Trish, who is a long-time Hound and whose opinion I value + the fact that pretty much everyone agrees that the noise level is exceedingly high, that have kept me from actually trying it. At this point, I'm still hesitating....

            1. re: RGR

              Let me break your tie. Don't go. I finally went after all these years of great Chow write-ups. Disappointed, especially with the vaunted Spaghetti Carbonara. The pasta felt like Sbarro pasta, pre-cooked and then flash boiled. The Carbonara egg came *cooked*, like a sunny-side-up egg. (Tough to mix in an egg and coat the pasta when the egg is served sunny-side-up.)

              Il Cortile (in the much maligned Little Italy) is much better for traditional Amer-Italian dishes.

              1. re: NAtiveNewYorker

                I wondered about someone else's description of an egg on top of the Carbonara - didn't sound appetizing to me ...

                1. re: NAtiveNewYorker

                  The classic spaghetti carbonara is made with raw, beaten eggs added after the pasta is cooked. I doubt whether health department regulations would permit this, so I assume that is why Crispo uses a cooked egg. It is not sunny side up, it is poached, lightly, so the yolk is runny and can be mixed into the pasta. Is what you are saying that the yolk was cooked solid? If so I would have sent it back.

                  1. re: rrems

                    A runny yolk is not good enough. For Carbonara, it's all or nothing. Either the patron mixes in raw everything at the table, or the chef does this in the kitchen. Having cooked pieces of egg white on top of my pasta is not acceptable. The whole point of egg in this dish is that the egg cooks to the heat of the pasta...and coats it.

                    (BTW, why would the Board of Health allow runny yolks and not runny whites?)

                    1. re: NAtiveNewYorker

                      Because an egg can be cooked and still have a runny yolk. To me, the point is how the dish tastes. I think it is excellent, and it is one of their most popular dishes. FWIW, it was named Best Spaghetti Carbonara by New York Magazine in 2003, and also received high praise in a New York Times review. All or nothing? It does not have to be rigidly authentic to be good.

                      1. re: rrems

                        I completely agree.. "It does not have to be rigidly authentic to be good." I thought the Carbonara was delicious and a great idea/presentation to have a sunny side up egg on top. and why is cooked egg white on pasta so unacceptable? Why not think of it as another ingredient that makes this dish it's own?

                        I do understand that tastes can be relative. I'd say if you're hesitant about trying Crispo, just go. Any place, no matter who the great big famous chef is or the amazing hole in the wall restaurant will get both negative and positive reviews. But Crispo seems to have overwhelmingly positive reviews (including one from myself after my first visit) so what's the harm? Judge for yourself.

                    2. re: rrems

                      You can't really think this is DOH matter.

                      1. re: eatyououtofhouseandhome

                        Actually, I think rrems posted on another thread on this subject that she checked and it wasn't a DOH issue.

            2. I too was letdown by my one and only meal at Crispo. If you scroll down, my report is on this thread: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/450861

              I thought it was mediocre, and considering the raves on this board mediocre isn't good enough. I still contend the pasta was too mushy (though the meatball was very good), and the veal dish was horrendous. Our service and table location made for an overall bad experience.

              I haven't been back...I'll stick with Peasant and such,

              5 Replies
              1. re: TrishUntrapped

                Hi guys, thanks for the feedback. Just to clear some things up. I went on a Friday night, and sat down at 10:30pm. The kitchen closes at 12:00 but we were one of the last tables to be sat that night (as far as I could tell) (Prehaps the chef left early that night, and the remaining kitchen staff got really lazy?)

                Again, like I said, my expectations were high, but even if this had just been a place I walked into having never heard of it before, I would still be disappointed. Like I said, my girlfriend, who is the farthest thing from picky when it comes to her food, couldn't even eat her Carbonara.

                Still, I might have to hop back one more time just to grab a bowl of pasta again. I still feel like I'm missing out on a really great place!

                1. re: TrishUntrapped

                  Trish,

                  I just reread your earlier post and it seems your complaint is much less about the food than the uncomfortable table and rushed service. Whenever they have tried to give me a table I don't like, I simply asked for a different table, and they have always accommodated. I also accept the fact that at these prices, they need to turn tables, so the food comes out quickly. I have had the saltimbocca several times and it was perfect each time, so all I can say is I am surprised they did not get it right for you. I have not been to Peasant but have checked out their menu, and it is considerably more expensive, so I don't think it's a fair comparison.

                  1. re: rrems

                    rrems, I understand I had a problem with the table and service. But I had a problem with mediocre food too. I didn't slam the food in my original review because it wasn't all bad. I noticed the table next to us was getting what appeared to be much better stuff (fish and such) than we did.

                    Having had time to step back and reflect, and putting the service/table issues out of my mind, I think the place can be inconsistent, You might get a good veal dish, I might get yesterday's leftovers (or at least what tasted like that to me).

                    So, while I accept that others have had very good meals here, I didn't. And contrary to what I initially thought - that I would go back for spaghetti and meatballs- I haven't had the desire to do so.

                    So, basically I am supporting the original poster and agreeing that one can indeed dine poorly at Crispo, sad as that may seem.

                    As for the prices between Crispo and Peasant:

                    At Crispo, pastas are listed at between $17.95 and $21.50 (on menupages.com)
                    At Peasant, pastas are $22 to $28 (Peasan't online menu) so for .50 cents more you can have a Peasant pasta.

                    As for mains, at Crispo they range from $17.50 to $21. If you want a veggie you have to tack on $6 more.

                    At Peasant, mains are $22 to $29 and include the veggies and starches.

                    I don't see a lot of appreciative difference, and I'm a cheap Yankee.

                    1. re: TrishUntrapped

                      Sorry, forgot to add one more thing... About not getting a decent table.... rrems, good for you that when you complain to Crispo's staff they give you a better table. Unfortunately, that did not work for us.

                      I made my reservation on opentable.com and at that time requested a table in the Garden Room. When we arrived (early early evening), I reminded the hostess we had requested a table in the Garden Room. She said tables there are based on availability, She then took a few minutes, studied her chart and said yes we could have a table there. It was the first table on the left, when you enter the room. The swinging door next to it is a major distraction. In addition, this should be a two-top, but they squeezed three of us in it. It is also near a fountain, which doesn't smell very good.

                      I noticed 2/3 of the tables in the Garden Room were empty and asked if we could be seated at another table as it was not comfortable, I was flat out told no.

                      1. re: TrishUntrapped

                        Trish,

                        I totally understand your feelings with regard to the seating problem you describe here, especially since I am rather fussy about where I am seated in restaurants. Frankly, even when food is first-rate, it's hard to enjoy a meal when one is seated at a table that for whatever reason is uncomfortable.

                        This reminds me of what we encountered the first time we went to Casa Mono. We made a reservations for three, and when we arrived, the hostess tried to seat us at a table that could barely accommodate two, let alone three. Without even allowing her to walk us there, I stated in no uncertain terms that it was totally unacceptable, and we were not going to sit there. Her reaction was in the "if looks could kill" category, but no matter to me. We stood near the entrance until she arranged to put two two-tops together. At Casa Mono, tables are spaced sardine-close, so we were only millimeters away from the adjacent table, but it was still better than sitting at that teensy table.

                2. The original comment has been removed
                  1. I think the comments on this board raise expectations for Crispo WAY too high. It's a decent neighborhood restaurant, but not a destination place, in my opinion. My feelings are the opposite of yours: I've had good food there, especially pasta, but I find the decor generic and the service never very good. I'm not a huge fan of Lupa, either, though, so to each his/her own, I suppose...

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: scrittrice

                      I agree with much of your post, scrittrice.
                      Crispo is no upscale fancy restaurant. It is really basic. In fact, if it were not for the always excellent Italian food I have gotten there, I'd probably never go because it is definitely not my type of dining establishment.
                      It's way too noisy for my taste, it favors a kind of young crowd generally, it's not pretty by normal standards -- just a typical looking Italian restaurant with a couple of very crowded rooms and a busy bar.
                      It is extremely popular and is totally mobbed on Friday and Saturday nights. And yes, it DOES make a difference in the noise level from other nights, believe me!
                      As for the service, I happen to have a friend that frequents there and as such we get "pampered" but I freely admit that without this perk I really believe the service would be less than attentive -- they're that busy!
                      For me, it's all about the food.
                      It's that simple.

                    2. I'm sorry to hear you didn't enjoy your meal. To a Chowhound, that's a major disappointment!

                      I went to Crispo for the first time this month with a friend and thoroughly enjoyed it. They seated us in the front rustic room which I found a little too tight to be seated next to other diners. I didn't know they had a back room called the Garden Room which is so airy with high ceilings and more comfortably spaced tables. That's where I'd want to sit next time for a birthday celebration or any other occasion.

                      We ordered the specials that day. My friend had grilled striped bass which was delicious and I had the Spaghetti Primavera which was the best I've ever had. I usually stay away from this dish because I don't like zucchini and Primavera is usually overloaded with it. Gusto's version was light with wild mushrooms, a little zucchini, eggplant, carrots. The prices were reasonable and the service was excellent. My friend enjoyed a glass of Pinot Grigio and felt the $7 price was reasonable for the size of the glass.

                      I would definitely go back to explore the rest of their menu. This is an excellent restaurant for the 14th Street neighborhood. I hope you'll give it another try.