The "wilderness phase" of Joseph Scarpone's career took a bit longer than expected.
But if ever there was a bright little dumpling to lead the way to the end of that path, the ethereal ricotta gnocchi he serves at Ulivo - glowing bright in a halo of truffle butter - are as powerful a beacon as any. They're so delicate, these soft puffs of milky sweetness just dissolve like a reverie, melting away into a truffled hum that warms contentment to the core. My fork, seemingly magnetized, is already in motion back to the plate for another. Simple food done just right, no matter the setting, can heal a lot of history.
The pleasure has been a long time in coming, as the last few years of Scarpone's recent wandering phase certainly lasted longer than many of his admirers would have liked. I was among the many who were disappointed when his talent for fresh Italian cooking blipped off the local radar with Sovalo's closing in Northern Liberties in 2008.
The Drexel Hill native had just been in the throes of his "competitive, making-a-name" phase, a triumphant return from years at Napa's Tra Vigne, after which he showed us the pleasures of Cali-Italian cooking. At sophisticated, handsome Sovalo, which he'd opened with his then-wife, Karey, the seasonal handmade pastas and slow-braised meats topped with crunchy fresh greens offered a bright new spark to our already crowded Italian scene.
After Sovalo's finale, though, Scarpone's subsequent "grand project" phase began to fizzle. A series of joint ventures in Manayunk dragged on from months into years, and then into irreconcilable differences with his business partners. Then, after a sudden exit from the group's restaurant, Agiato, career prospects could have gone either way for the now-40-year-old chef.
So he's gone the simple, solo route.
"I will still out-cook a 20-year-old any day," says Scarpone.
And that, of course, is his salvation - a concise menu of strikingly vivid Italian plates that, at mostly less than $20 a dish, represents one of the best new dining values in the city. Delicate ribbons of tagliatelle tangle with a stewy ragu of tender pork steeped with rosemary. The rustic smoke of speck ham floats through a salad filled with juicy bursts of blood orange, the bitter crunch of frisee, and the salty snow of ricotta salata. Spaghetti carbonara - now making a welcome comeback - makes one of its best appearances here: a yolk-crowned nest of noodles that, once twirled to blend, shines with a creamy richness that sparks with salty little nuggets of rendered pancetta.
Granted, three-month-old Ulivo lacks some of the moody polish of Sovalo. The 50-seat room is relatively minimalist BYO material, a wedge-shaped Queen Village space angled off a corner of East Passyunk and Catharine, whose clean, olive-toned look has some character from the antique stamped-metal ceilings, but also a noise problem that needs only a few raucous tables to ratchet up the din.
The service is pleasant enough but young, and a little scattered and inexperienced. It's the only way to explain the look of panicked befuddlement on the food runners' faces every time one emerged from the kitchen with food, as if they were thinking: "Oh God - where do these plates go?"
When those plates land in the right place, however, Ulivo's real virtue as a great neighborhood restaurant is clear enough. Scarpone was born to cook, and the fact that so many of these dishes are deceptively simple - just good, well-cooked ingredients in good combinations with a couple of inventive tweaks - is ultimately reassuring.
I love the use of thin soppressata, for example, to lend the tender char-grilled octopus an extra savory tang. Bits of pork, either guanciale or speck, also lend their salty or smoky pop to the lentils beneath the grilled salmon, or the brothy onion-mushroom soup, which is left chunky for rustic satisfaction.
The surprise of slivered dry dates added both unexpected sweetness and a little chew to the bitterness of radicchio salad. Meyer lemon, meanwhile, a winter infatuation Scarpone brought back from his California days, adds irresistible brightness to his amazingly crisp and juicy chicken breast, posed over saffron-tinted pasta beads of fregola sarda. The vaguely Caesar-like piquance of an anchovy aioli adds zest to a meaty fillet of mahimahi, pan-seared over roasted cauliflower and frisee greens and jeweled with juicy grapefruit.
That contrast of raw freshness against hot, savory proteins is a hallmark of the West Coast style that still infuses Scarpone's menu. But so is the seasonal reflex, well-played in the tonnarelli pasta tossed with snappy hedgehog mushrooms and sweet cubes of butternut squash.
The meat dishes were just as satisfying. A tender braised pork shank came with hearty stewed chickpeas and the peppery spice of wilted dandelion greens. An amazingly juicy pork chop, its cleaned bone bending off the plate like a panhandle, nestled among white beans and royal trumpet mushrooms, with a chimichurrilike zap of Sicilian green sauce. A beautifully marinated flat-iron steak comes with irresistible fries braised in olive oil before they're crisped in an herbaceous crust of arborio rice flour.
The farrotto, a mound of stewed grains piled high with white beans, duck confit, and huckleberries, was one of the few off-kilter plates, a dense porridge that would have been better as a smaller appetizer. The lamb and potato pasta would have been excellent with a better choice of pasta shape than the sleek ceppo tubes that let the ingredients simply tumble to the bottom of the plate. The fried polenta starter was tasty enough - but a bit too predictable for a chef of Scarpone's wit.
Even with the desserts - a moist chocolate cake topped with candied orange laces; the creamy carnaroli rice pudding perked up with Meyer lemon zest; or the olive oil-rosemary cake dolloped with lemon ricotta - that spirit is tastefully evident. Uncomplicated, but well done and interesting enough to keep eating.
I'm calling it Joseph Scarpone's "keeping it simple and cooking what he wants" phase. And I hope it lasts for a nice long time.
Contact Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682, @CraigLaBan on Twitter, or firstname.lastname@example.org.