Il Gradino: Stellar Southern Italian Fare On The Upper East Side!

Il Gradino, a new 66-seat Southern Italian eatery started by Diego Argudo the beloved former captain at the legendary Scalintella, is filled to the brim starting every night about 6:30 and that is for a few different reasons. The first reason is that the food is prepared to order, meaning that the staff gladly takes your preferences into consideration and twists any dish on the menu to fulfill your quirkiest “foodie” desires. (Il Gradino is all about customization and they are proud of it!) Secondly, the modern yet comfortable atmosphere is relaxing even when both the bar and dining room are full–this Upper East Side resto just has the pleasant feeling of community and camaraderie. You get the feeling that every guest knows each other and looks forward to being greeted by Argudo and then trying the latest dishes by chef Carlos Inga–who is a veteran of the highly loved Caravaggio. The third reason is that the wait staff is very knowledgeable on Italian food and can tell you where all the ingredients came from as well as the dishes’ back stories in a lot of cases. The fourth reason is that the food comes out of the kitchen very promptly! You will never be waiting for your food more than ten minutes and every recipe is tried and true–you really cannot go wrong here. There are lots of specials that are classics prepared with a few special Chef Inga flourishes and “extras.”

Now, speaking of extras, you don’t just get beautiful freshly made breads (including focaccia with onions) and olive oil at the beginning of your meal. You get a few nice perks like imported olives, artisanal Parmesan chunks and dried zucchini with olive oil and garlic that is very old school and incredibly delicious. I have honestly never come across this in a restaurant before at all as it is usually a homemade item by people who like to preserve their garden’s harvest each year.

There are numerous appetizers available including antipasto, calamari, carpaccio and caprese but I put Southern Italian restos to the test by getting a half portion of their pasta with red sauce to start my meal. The Spaghetti Pomodoro here is pure perfection. I have never had a Pomodoro sauce that is so perfect. It is very chunky, has large fresh basil leaves and has just the right amount of tang. I had one half of a portion and immediately wanted to eat four more–but alas I had to save room for my entree and dessert!

My dining partner Gail, who is also a food journalist, loves any pasta with bolognese sauce and the Fettucine Bolognese here features shredded veal, beef and a creamy yet light sauce. Gail was “over the moon,” as they say. You can see her half portion pictured above; she ate very slowly to savor every bite. I had to have a taste myself and admit that is was super satisfying. This legendary dish could probably serve as an entree as it was very filling. The “ragu” sauce has so many different and fabulous flavors melding together between the juicy cuts of meat, olive oil and fresh herbs scattered on top.

The Bistecca Alla Pizzaiola aka Steak Pizzaaiola is truly remarkable and is made with a 16-ounce Creekstone Farms Natural Prime Boneless Ribeye Steak (which are aged 28 days and in a league of their own). I have not had this remarkable dish in many years and I am glad that I ordered it! I enjoyed the rich sauce made with tomatoes, onions and peppers and wound up dipping a couple of pieces bread in the excess. The leftovers of this dish were happily consumed for lunch the next day! BTW, if you prefer poultry to red meat, you can order Pollo Alla Pizzaiola.

The chicken dishes are very talked about menu items and rightfully so! My guest Gail had the Petto Di Pollo Voldostana, which is chicken breast topped with prosciutto, Fontina cheese and asparagus then served in a brown butter sauce. I took a bite, closed my eyes and enjoyed the soft and juicy texture of the chicken and all the buttery goodness of the sauce. When I go back to Il Gradino, I am most definitely ordering this. It has to be one of the most luxurious tasting chicken dishes that I have ever experienced. The side of fresh tomato with lightly sautéed string beans and carrots is a nice touch.

You can’t go to a Southern Italian restaurant without getting Ricotta Cheesecake and the one I ordered was insanely creamy and had just the right levels of vanilla extract and sweetness. It is served with a generous dollop of whipped cream, swirls of raspberry sauce and super sweet organic berries. This is the type of dessert that dreams are made of–I could tell that the ricotta used was homemade.

The chocolate mousse at Il Gradino is special because not only because dog its high level of creaminess and artisanal chocolate goodness–but because of the crunchy chocolate wafer crust. There is fresh chocolate sauce drizzled on the mousse, accompanying dollop of whipped cream and on the outer perimeter of the plate. I want to add that Il Gradino has wonderful Euro style coffees that you can end your meal with so do not skip out on them! If you want a really old school Italian experience, get an espresso with Sambuca or Anisette added.

There is a lively bar crowd at Il Gradino and you can actually eat at the bar–which is surrounded by beautiful bowls of fresh fruit and other produce that extend into the front window. This cozy little white marble bar is especially nice if you are dining solo. I overheard one lady seated on the bar chair closest to the front window ordering a plate of pasta so customized that I was amazed at how the bartender taking their order was able to keep it all straight, LOL! Apparently everyone who works at the restaurant are to people who want lots of extra this and that–and who want just as many things not added! I give them an A for both patience and flexibility on finicky eaters’ orders! For more info on this “luxurious yet casual chic” new kid on the Upper East Side restaurant block, go to IlGradino.com. They have a great two course Restaurant Week lunch every year for only $30 that includes the more upscale items like Carpaccio Di Filet Mignon and Grilled Red Snapper. Restaurant Week will come around again in January so that will give you a great opportunity to sample some of Il Gradino’s fabulous fare on the cheap. On an additional note, the waitstaff makes great wine recommendations and the bar staff is willing to make any cocktail that you can come up with. Il Gradino is located at 808 Lexington so it is a quick walk from Bloomingdale’s and other great stores on the Upper East Side–so that makes it a convenient and tasty place to stop for lunch or dinner. Reservations are suggested but not mandatory.