Dining

Suburban Spoleto

Spoleto feels right at home in East Longmeadow.

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Thursday, August 16, 2007
CAROLINE PAM PHOTO
Spoleto's southern outpost is bright and cheerful and offers most of the Guerra group's greatest hits.

I suppose it was inevitable that Claudio Guerra’s Spoleto empire would eventually spread south to capitalize on Springfield’s wealthy suburbs. Opened last fall, Spoleto East Longmeadow is now a successful branch of the Northampton-based conglomerate that includes the original Spoleto, Spoleto Express, Pizzeria Paradiso, Del Raye Bar and Grill and, most recently, Mama Iguana’s.

Instead of simply replicating the food and setting that has made the original Spoleto one of Northampton’s most popular dining destinations for almost 20 years, the East Longmeadow restaurant offers almost all the greatest hits of the entire Guerra group, with easier parking. Stone-baked pizzas are just as good as Paradiso’s wood-fired pies, frozen cocktails are a nod to Iguana’s extensive list of libations, and panini and wrap sandwiches for lunch are drawn from the offerings at Spoleto Express.

Of course, several Spoleto menu favorites can be found here as well, including the pasta shells with Andouille sausage and Cajun shrimp, rigatoni alla Bolognese, and chicken rollatini. But, surprisingly, some of the trademark specialties are notably absent: for instance, the mozzarella en carozza and blackened beef tips.

The new space, however, is an improvement over the Northampton restaurant’s dark, cramped dining room. The familiar, colorful posters from 30 years of South Carolina’s annual Spoleto arts festival are displayed here, as in Northampton, but they fade in comparison to a monumental mirrored wall that heightens the effect of the already impressive space. Vaulted ceilings, a shiny open kitchen, an inviting bar island and a wall of sunny windows create an airy, cheerful atmosphere for an informal meal.

Spoleto East Longmeadow began offering a $20 four-course, prix fixe menu as a grand opening special, but it quickly became so popular they’ve kept it on indefinitely. Anything on the menu qualifies seven days a week and it’s hard to imagine paying $18.95 a la carte for the braised beef ragu when you can have that plus an appetizer, salad and dessert for $1 more.

A few items require an additional charge, such as the beef carpaccio, but it’s so uncommon to find one on local menus I decided to splurge. Paper-thin slices of rare beef are fanned out on the plate, drizzled with fresh-squeezed lemon and Parmesan shavings, and topped with a salty caper and olive salad. The meat was rosy like roast beef rather than bright red as I’ve had in Italy, but the dish was nevertheless a more than passable version of this classic refreshing appetizer.

Pizzas are exceptionally good, with a crispy, thin, blistery crust and just a few well-conceived topping combinations like “Margarita” with fresh tomato and mozzarella or “Chevre Delight” with goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes. The Umbria pizza is a more unusual white pizza substituting a light Parmesan cream sauce for tomato sauce, topped with super-sweet caramelized onions and chewy strips of prosciutto.

I had less luck with the entrées I sampled. Linguini with littleneck clams offered insufficient pasta drowned in an impossibly salty broth teeming with rubbery clams. Honey ginger-grilled Atlantic salmon suffered from over-sweetness in the sauce and the accompanying pineapple salsa; the fish itself was perfectly moist but disappointingly bland.

But subtlety has never been Spoleto’s strong suit; instead the group has won hearts with big, bold flavors and a spirit of casual celebration. In these important respects, the East Longmeadow restaurant carries on the Spoleto tradition with style.

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