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Il Gradino is one of NYC’s top restaurants for 2022

New York is full of Italian restaurants boasting they’re authentically representing one region or tiny corner of the country.

It’s a noble calling, but annoying when waiters insist a dish can only be made one way — as in, “No, you can’t have Bolognese sauce, we’re Sicilian.”

Which might be why Il Gradino, which opened last spring at 808 Lexington Ave. (at East 63rd Street), is packed night and day. Owner Diego Argudo — a several-decades veteran manager of Italian eateries including celeb-strewn Scalinatella — came up with the idea of a piacere options, which means “prepared according to your preference.”

It lets customers choose how they’d like certain pasta, meat and seafood dishes to be made, even if they’re outside the standard playbook.

Interior of the bar at Il Gradino.
The fully stocked bar at Il Gradino.
Il Gradino
Close up of calamari
Squid game: Order up the grilled calamari.
Il Gradino
Close up of pollo scarpariello.
A pretty dish of pollo scarpariello.
Il Gradino

Often when I ask for even minor variations at many Italian eateries — such as anchovies with penne and basil pesto, which doesn’t ordinarily include anchovies —  the waiter makes a face. “I’ll talk to the chef,” is a common refrain.

But perhaps because Argudo is Ecuadorean-born, he didn’t feel the constraints of authenticity that straitjackets some Italian owners and chefs.

At Il Gradino, a snug and pretty 65-seater on the lower Upper East Side, “If somebody wants risotto with sausage, for example, we’ll do it for them,” Argudo says. “We always say yes. We want to make people comfortable.”

A close up of a dish of petti di pollo.
The petti di pollo doesn’t disappoint.
Il Gradino
A fireplace at Il Gradino.
Il Gradino keeps things cozy in the wintertime with a fireplace.
Il Gradino
Close up of the restaurant's veal marsala.
Holy cow, the veal marsala is one of the eatery’s “greatest hits.”
Il Gradino

The chef is Carlos Inga, who’s worked at San Pietro, Il Mulino and Caravaggio. His menu offers a kind of “greatest hits” lineup from Italy’s north and south. It lists four a piacere options — for risotto, chicken, Dover sole and veal medallions. For example, what style and sauce do you want with your veal? Marsala, francese, Milanese or pizzaiola? “It’s up to you,” Argudo says.

Dover sole can be had plain-grilled or in meunière or Dijon-mustard style. But the house is even more flexible than that. Devise a dish out of your own imagination and Argudo and Inga will do their best to make it real.

One customer said he was in the mood for pasta with vodka sauce but couldn’t decide on Bolognese or pesto, Argudo recalls. “I said, ‘We’ll do a little combination for you, and they were very happy.’ ” Salute. 

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