Team spirit

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When two successful restaurateurs and a professional DJ wanted to open a neighborhood spot to serve the Italian food they love, there was only one thing missing: a chef.

Mariano Franzese, Giovanni Cavaggia and Pierluigi Palazzo met 10 years ago when they were fathers of infants born about a month apart. The East Village dads became fast friends and, as years passed, their respective careers took off: Franzese founded Turntables on the Hudson and worked as a DJ in clubs throughout the city; Cavaggia and Palazzo became restaurateurs: Cavaggia co-owned Gradisca in the West Village; Palazzo owns Gnocco and Perbacco in the East Village.

While their kids played, the men tossed around the idea of joining forces and launching a spot that “didn’t serve fettuccine Alfredo and veal Parmesan,” Franzese told GO Brooklyn. They imagined a place where diners could find the simple dishes that the men remembered from home.

“We’re all from different regions of the country,” said Franzese. “I’m from Naples; Giovanni, our ‘wine guy,’ comes from Rome; Luigi is from Puglia, near the heel of the boot. We missed food the way it was prepared there.”

Their talk was never more than that until a long time friend, the Venice-born chef Claudio Cristofoli, showed an interest.

“When Claudio came on board, that’s when we started putting it together,” said Franzese. Cristofoli is the executive chef at the trendy Soho boite Downtown Cipriani (he’s in the kitchen at lunch service) — one of several Ciprianis, the Venice branch is recognized as the home of the “Bellini,” a cocktail made with sparkling wine and peach liquor.

With rents in their East Village neighborhood skyrocketing, the newly formed supergroup turned to Brooklyn to house their restaurant.

“We looked in Park Slope,” said Franzese, “and we really liked what we saw there.” The spot they chose for Spirito Ristorante sits between a McDonald’s and a nail salon in the high-turnover space that most recently housed Futura Bistro Modern. The block between Fourth and Fifth avenues isn’t the most enticing street in the area, but Franzese said he wasn’t worried.

“The location seemed just right,” he said.

Spirito opend in late April. “We wanted something small and cute,” Franzese explained. Smallish it might be — the dining area seats 35; the terrace 25; and when the garden in the back of the eatery opens next month, there will be room for 40 more — “cute” though, doesn’t do the decor justice.

Spirito’s chocolate-brown awning, with the eatery’s name printed in gold, signals an elegant addition to the block. Gaze through the long windows, opened wide on a recent evening, into a long, high-ceilinged room. Dark wooden tables and a rich mahogany bar, brick walls and modern glass chandeliers create a handsome setting. Up a flight of wooden stairs is a lovely room with a glass ceiling. On warm nights, the “walls” made of plastic and fabric, can be rolled up creating an outdoor, sky-lit space.

“It was raining one night and it was gorgeous up there with the water running down the skylight,” said Franzese.

Cristfoli’s opening menu is an amalgamation of the dishes the partners longed for when they first imagined their eatery. From the chef’s sea-bound region there is “Fritto Misto” (mixed fry in Italian) the brittle, crisply fried pieces of calamari and slices of artichokes to be dipped in spicy tomato sauce. There are simple appetizers (“primis” in Italian) like oversized rigatoni with seafood in fisherman’s sauce, and “Bucatini All’ Amatriciana,” the classic Roman dish of large spaghetti with tangy tomato sauce flavored with pancetta.

Entrees (“secondis”) typify the kind of satisfying cuisine the partners dreamed of serving, especially the simple plate of Cornish game hens grilled with rosemary and served with a light lemon sauce.

Franzese is pleased with the reception the restaurant has received and is so enamored with the diners, that he’s considering abandoning the East Village for Brooklyn. “The kids are older now. I’m looking for a house.”

He sounds like a native already.

Spirito Ristorante (287 Ninth St., between Fourth and Fifth avenues) accepts American Express, Diners Club, Discover, MasterCard and Visa. Entrees: $16-$24. The restaurant serves dinner Tuesday through Sunday. Closed Monday. For information, call (718) 832-0085.

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