The sad effect of celebrity-chef migrations—when, almost weekly, some Jean-Georges, Graham Elliot, or Michael White hits our shores—is that we’ve begun to lose our appreciation for small neighborhood restaurants. After all, why would a “foodie” (no doubt breathlessly educated by the Food Network) even bother to dine in a local restaurant if it doesn’t have a nationally recognized face at the helm?
I’ll tell you why: Those celebrity chefs have important places to be while you’re dining—and, mostly, that’s smiling in front of a camera somewhere else. As brilliant as they are, it’s unlikely that any of those superstars will be cooking your food on a Tuesday night in Westchester. However, nothing could be further from the celebrity-restaurant effect than L’inizio, a small Ardsley restaurant owned and operated by the husband-and-wife team of Chefs Scott and Heather Fratangelo. He works in the kitchen, turning excellent seasonal ingredients into elegant, Italy-inspired savories, while she creates the restaurant’s desserts and also greets diners. L’inizio adheres to an old-school, family-restaurant model, except that the Fratangelos come with serious restaurant chops—they owned Manhattan’s well-regarded Spigolo before opting for a slower pace in the ’burbs.
There is virtually nothing on this menu that disappoints, and many of L’inizio’s dishes are remarkable. Take the antipasto of citrus-cured hamachi with pickled ramps: Cool, silken fish—which bore the ideal balance of acid and salt—was topped with a smattering of delicious spring-pea leaves. There were creamy chicken-liver crostini highlighted by sweet/tart/spicy rhubarb chutney and topped with crispy whole fried sage leaves. L’inizio also offers an urbane take on the red-sauce-joint standard, baked clams. Here, a luscious bagna càuda and minimal bread crumbs let the clams’ sea-fresh brine shine—and those are just the antipasti, folks.
L'inizio's awkwardly narrow space
Oh, there are problems at L’inizio—namely, the awkward barbell-shaped space that, until recently, was Chef Shea Gallante’s Italian Kitchen. There is no bar at which to wait, so make sure to reserve your table and show up on time. The square tables in the narrow front room are positioned with their corners to the wall, which leaves clumsy, wedge-shaped spaces into which pairs of diners are forced to squeeze as they look out into the room from adjacent sides. In the slightly larger back room (which has a picture window overlooking a parking lot), tight seating makes it a Rubik’s Cube. Plus, this snug restaurant is getting ever more popular—we couldn’t help but wish the Fratangelos chose a roomier site for their Westchester venture.
English-pea ravioli, oyster mushrooms, preserved lemon, and pecorino
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While L’inizio offers wonderful cocktails and a well-priced, mostly Italian wine list, you won’t want to space out during the waiter’s recitation of the specials. On one night, we caught an evanescent starter of bursting, sweet, soft-shell crabs with cherry-pepper aioli, seasonal pea leaves, and pickled ramps. There are wonderful salads, too, like herbal celery with tart apple, dates, Gorgonzola, and walnuts. Or start with a selection from the seasonally changing list of pastas, which are offered in both appetizer and main portions. On one night, we liked the comfort of pillowy gnocchi with braised duck, Castelvetrano olives, and Marcona almonds; on another, there were ravioli with sweet English peas, oyster mushrooms, preserved lemons, and salty pecorino.
If there is any complaint about L’inizio—other than that its space is awkward—it’s that its four menu mains feel less inspired than the dishes that came before. One wonders if the Fratangelos felt compelled to offer meat-and-potato standards like seared New York strip steak (admittedly unique, with bone-marrow butter and Parmesan potatoes) or Hemlock Hill roasted chicken (admittedly deviating from the norm, with hazelnuts and Hudson Valley-sourced polenta). Faced with these unusual, albeit stylish, takes on the usual suspects, we hit the specials. On one night, these included fat planks of creamy-fleshed halibut in a deliciously briny broth with those English peas and Swiss chard.
As is L’inizio’s list of savories, Heather Fratangelo’s desserts are seasonal and sophisticated. There was the unexpected, like carrots in a torta with cinnamon semifreddo, mango, and sweet mascarpone (no longer offered); also daring acid in strawberry-rhubarb cobbler (it was tamed by the mild creaminess of vanilla semifreddo). Dares aside, there are crowd-pleasers, too, like cinnamon-dusted bomboloni or New York cheesecake baked in a jar with graham-cracker crumbles.
Finally, in what has become a long list of raves, there is the genuine hospitality offered at L’inizio, which is something that is difficult to teach in the corporate restaurant structure of celebrity-chef restaurants. For all of its spatial challenges, L’inizio is a warm and welcoming place with seriously delicious food. Smart diners will know when to turn off the Food Network and pounce.
Food 3.5 | Service 3.5 | Atmosphere 3 | Cost $$$
698 Saw Mill River Rd, Ardsley