After more than two decades at Midtown East’s venerable Scalinatella as head captain, Diego Argudo opened his first venture, ll Gradino Ristorante, on May 31 at 808 Lexington Avenue. Just around the corner from Argudo’s former professional haunt, where he started as a waiter, the new 66-seat Il Gradino (“the step,” referencing the somewhat below street level entrance to what had been a Fig & Olive space between 62nd and 63rd Streets) is a long-held dream come true for the Ecuadorian native, who started his restaurant career at age 15 as water boy when he arrived in New York City to join his chef father.
At ll Gradino, Argudo presents a menu of time-honored Italian classics for lunch and dinner, including “a piacere” (prepared according to your preference) options for risotto, calamari, veal medallions, Dover sole, lobster and chicken. Diners are invited to ask for their favorite version of each for the kitchen to prepare to their specifications. In fact, Argudo’s hospitable a piacere policy for Il Gradino extends far beyond the six so designated menu items. If a guest has a yen for an Italian dish not on the menu or among the plethron of daily specials, all they need do is describe it and the chef will accommodate the request. Argudo explains that for him, its’ all about pleasing guests’ palates, not catering to the chef’s ego.
That chef is Carlos Inga in his first executive chef role, having logged eight years as a sous chef, at San Pietro and Il Molino; he is also a veteran of Caravaggio. For his inaugural Il Gradino menu, Inga has curated a selection of antipasti, salads, pasta (house made, except for the dry iterations), veal dishes, chicken-based plates and fish offerings. Highlights include: Raviolini Il Gradino, house made ravioli stuffed with burrata, eggplant, zucchini cherry tomato saucy, basil; Vitello Milanese o alla Griglia, house butchered veal cutlets from the rack prepared in classic breaded Milanese style or as a grilled paillard crowned by arugula tossed with cherry; Petto Pollo Voldostana, chicken breast topped with prosciutto, Fontina and asparagus in brown sauce; Poussin Il Griglia, herb-marinated whole baby chicken, grilled; and Branzino al Sale, roasted sea salt encrusted branzino.
The new Il Gradino embraces a refined modern esthetic with intriguingly textured wallpapers on which soft grey hues are contrasted with rich dark teal greens. A custom-painted Miro reminiscent mural adorns one wall, while white, black and grey marble grained mirror panels define another and a sleek oversized dark grey marble mantled fireplace anchors a third. The setting exudes a polished, subtle sophistication in which relaxed comfort rules.