When Rosemarie Tran and her chef-husband, Gianluca Demontis, opened Melograno a decade ago at 22d and Spruce, it was like they'd uncorked lightning in a 30-seat BYOB.
The two-hour waits began immediately as diners came for Demontis' subtle but authentic takes on pappardelle with truffled mushrooms and walnuts, fig-stuffed quails, and bistecca alla Fiorentina. The city was already awash with Italian BYOBs, but there was something about Melograno's spirit and flavors that simply set it apart.
The reception has been warm but not yet quite as torrid for Fraschetta, the couple's new venture in Bryn Mawr. At times, it's as though Demontis has been playing the role of Primo, the exacting but misunderstood chef in Big Night whose first-time customers are baffled that real Italian food is not what they expected.
"They keep asking me, 'Why is there no spaghetti with my meatballs?' or 'You don't have chicken Parmesan?' " says Demontis. "But sometimes they stay . . . and then they get it."
If they don't, I'll gladly take the table.
Because Demontis is producing the same kind of genuine Italian fare here that has won him devoted fans in Center City. From perfectly al dente bucatini all'amatriciana tangled in tomato sauce perfumed with zesty house-cured pancetta, to a grilled swordfish steak so fresh it's almost as creamy inside as the white beans beneath it, this is how simple trattoria cooking should taste.
It's a subtle gift I suppose many diners will miss if they're anticipating flashy pairings, huge portions, or brilliantly personal creations. Demontis, rather, cooks with the earnestness of a great folksinger whose creations rise from tradition on a unique timbre, flavor, and touch that only a native hand can bring.
He simply dips into the personal history of his Roman youth to make nostalgic dishes taste fresh again.
Delicate house-spun fettuccine arrives in a soulful ragu alla Romana that tastes like familiar ground beef Bolognese at first, until it turns exotic with clovey Medici spice, earthy with porcini, and richly gamey with fine bits of chicken liver and gizzard. The mezzi-rigatoni carbonara, glazed ideally in a not-too-heavy shine of egg and Pecorino, draws a musky savor from pancetta housemade from lamb belly instead of pork.
Pristine sea bass fillets are the essence of minimalist pleasure, simmered "aquapazza"-style in tangy wine with fresh mint. Served over nutmeg-scented mashed potatoes with a long-stemmed artichoke, pink laces of onion with a lemony tang accent the natural sweetness of the bass. Even something as plain as sheer coins of lightly grilled zucchini are irresistible, fanned across a splendid vegetarian antipasti platter alongside grilled eggplant, white bean salad, and an assortment of rarely seen Roman cheeses.
Demontis' concerted focus on his Roman roots seems to have bolstered this menu, distinguishing it slightly from the second incarnation of Melograno, which, in its larger Sansom Street quarters, is being overseen by sous-chef Joe DiMatteo.
But Demontis is cooking closer to home in more ways than one. He and Tran have always lived on the Main Line, not far from their slender 40-seat Bryn Mawr dining room - the former Ha Long Bay, rehabbed with rustic wood beams spanning the vaulted ceiling, a wild boar's head, and woven Abruzzese farro baskets on the wall. An airy upstairs space with big windows and larger tables gives this BYOB another 40 seats.
With a relatively full room and some outstanding bottles from diners' private Main Line cellars flowing (I almost asked the table beside us for a sip of their Gaja), the tight quarters can become noisy.
The service staff, including some veterans I recognized from Melograno, did a fine job nonetheless explaining the menu. They were understandably vague, though, in describing the special crepe casserole as stuffed with "suckling pig." Only after I devoured the crock of porcini bechamel-glazed canneloni did Demontis explain in our phone interview the stuffing was made from suckling pig's head ("tongue, brain, everything") Some ricotta, nutmeg, and Roman know-how, obviously, can make anything taste good.
There were a few dishes that did not quite work. The porchetta was a big disappointment, the thinly sliced roast pork more like lunch meat than the crackly-skinned wonder pig I know. A traditional lamb stew was tender but boring. The tiramisu was a bit soupier on the bottom than usual.
Mostly, though, I found one dish after another that I crave on a regular basis. At lunch, we savored crisply fried morsels of mozzarella in carrozza, oozing beneath lemony olive oil and salty shavings of funky bottarga tuna roe. There was a crisply toasted panini stuffed with thinly sliced truffled mushrooms, walnuts, and mascarpone cream. Fine linguine came with a zesty amatriciana sauce that substituted Italian tuna for pancetta.
At dinner, meanwhile, there were numerous other standouts. An octopus stewed with tomato sauce and peas was amazingly tender. A grilled toast came mounded with plump Pecorino-dusted snails alla Romana, their garlicky gravy sparked with chile flake, anchovy, and fresh mint. Cured salmon gravlax was kissed with sweet grappa and crushed almonds.
A juicy medallion of pork loin involtino, stuffed with sage and Parmesan over a nutty Marsala sauce, was an elegant upgrade to classic saltimbocca. Soft mounds of buttery Roman semolina gnocchi added dumpling comfort to a crock of truffled mushrooms and goat cheese. Pan-crisped ricotta gnocchi paired with a naturally sweet, bright tomato sauce, meanwhile, was all that Demontis' incredibly savory meatballs needed.
The spaghetti I did not miss. I'm guessing it's only a matter of time before Fraschetta finds a Melograno-size audience on the Main Line that agrees.
Rosemarie Tran and Gianluca Demontis discuss Fraschetta at www.inquirer.com/labanreviews. Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan hosts an online chat at 2 p.m. Tuesdays at www.inquirer.com/labanchats.
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Indeblue in Center City.