The "tavola calda" at Popolino is the kind of welcome spread you just don't find much in Philadelphia anymore. Set on a long table near the entrance, this feast of colorful antipasti offers a cornucopia of appealing first bites, a dozen plates of room-temperature salads that change with the seasons (and with the leftovers, too, I presume).
Affable manager Stephen Flis will eagerly spoon an array onto your plate - sweet-and-spicy carrots kissed with harissa, raw white corn and lima beans tossed with anchovies and truffle oil, white beans with radicchio and prosciutto, milk-roasted fennel with capers and wine, port-braised cippolini, roasted peppers with mini Mexican gherkins. Grab an inch-thick slice of the rustic house-baked bread, and a meal here could not be off to a better start.
It's the inconsistencies of the dishes that followed that left me uncertain whether the world (let alone chef-owner Peter McAndrews) is really ready for yet another Peter McAndrews restaurant.
That "tavola" certainly offers an appealing glimpse of his culinary mind: boldly flavored, unconventionally Italian, and ever-bounding from one idea to the next. And sometimes off-kilter.
Why is coconut dusting the farro and artichokes with an un-Roman tropical note? There isn't a stray thread McAndrews can't somehow attempt to weave into his narrative, something about Romans showing off exotic ingredients from the far-flung empire. And he's so likable, I almost want to believe.
That's him, by the way, sashaying through the dining room in spotless chef whites, the boisterous "Irish guy who cooks Italian from Southwest Philly" blabbing a mile a minute, explaining how his kids' celiac disease inspired the gluten-free chestnut gnocchi, apologizing for his chef pals at a nearby table: "Sorry he's so loud. He's an Italian from South Philly," he said, motioning to Chris Scarduzio (who's actually from Overbrook.)
McAndrews has been so busy opening trattorias lately, it's almost a surprise to see him. This Roman-themed BYOB opened in Northern Liberties in March, adding to his two popular Paesano's sandwich shops, the Sicilian-themed Monsù, and northern Italian Modo Mio, his original Girard Avenue hit. As if that weren't enough to keep tabs on, he opened a wood-fired pizza tavern, La Porta, in May on the rural edge of Media.
Based on my meals at both new places, quality control has become an issue, from the oily-crusted pizzas and burnt bolognese lasagna at La Porta, to a host of careless plates at Popolino.
"I have a very distinct palate," concedes McAndrews, who is now on his third chef de cuisine at Popolino. "Teaching these guys my palate is a very difficult thing."
Ideally, that translates into two-fisted flavors that burst off the plate with zesty contrasts of salt, spice, sweet and sour, adventurous offal cuts, unusual combinations, and often a fried egg on top.
When the formula goes well, McAndrews' menus are truly exciting. He elevates calamari via inspiration from ancient Rome by dousing lightly crisped squid with garum-like fish sauce, sweet apricots, and nuts. A hunk of smoked bluefish, balanced by truffled honey, adds unexectedly fun dimensions to mozzarella and tomatoes that most Caprese salads have never dreamed of. A croquette of veal-foot pâté with pickled fennel and sweet-and-sour red sauce is one of the more memorable offal dishes from a menu that has many.
The staff, run by the outgoing Flis, a longtime Four Seasons server and operating partner at Popolino, does an excellent job selling the adventurous fare, even if some dishes are so overwrought that they require breathing exercises to fully describe.
A special casserole piled high with layers of braised tongue, bread, double-strength Parmesan broth, provolone, roasted onions, tomatoes, and the odd sweet-spicy note of apricot mostarda tasted suspiciously more like a leftover special than the "ancient sheepherder's dish" McAndrews described. Ditto for the rubbery house ricotta cavatelli tossed in a "butcher's squazetto" sauce filled with chunks of liver that were indistinguishable from the advertised morsels of sweetbreads, sausage, and venison scraps. Similarly, a crock of tripe in overly dark gravy was so blah, it seemed conceived more to prove that innards could be inoffensive rather than delicious - a much taller task.
A little brown butter is usually a good means to that end, but the tortelloni filled with sweetbreads were practically floating in a pool of burnt liquid gold.
Just a little finesse from the master's hand would have gone far in transforming some of these great ideas into successes. And at $40 for a four-course "turista menu" ($5 more than Modo Mio's, due to finer stemware and tablecloths), it's still a reasonable food value.
When all goes right, a night at this convivial BYOB, with its exposed brick walls, tin ceilings, and storefront-window view of the corner of Fifth and Fairmount can be charming. The bucatini all'amatriciana is spot-on, the tomato-onion sauce infused with guanciale richness and (perhaps a shade too much) chile-flake heat. The spaghetti with littleneck clams was simplicity perfected. A thick pork chop stuffed with oozy provolone and prosciutto, then topped with heirloom tomatoes and spinach, was a tender ode to pile-it-on South Philly. A "crepinette" patty of braised lamb-shank meat wrapped inside a translucent sheet of caul fat, set beside a semolina Roman gnocchi beneath an oozing fried egg, was vintage McAndrews at its best - hearty, intense, sensual, over-the-top.
Too many dishes, though, stumbled over execution that can only be described as "sloppolino." The lamb carpaccio was flavorful, but warmed so much that the curling shreds looked like cheesesteak meat scraped off a griddle. A clever saltimbocca variation of trout wrapped in prosciutto and sage was overcooked, as stiff as a board. The luscious tuna was wildly overspiced. Veal with mushrooms was drowned in cream. And the odd, mole-like cocoa sauce for the canneloni could not hide the lack of tenderness of the shredded oxtail tucked inside.
With such full-bore flavors, it was a relief to find some delicacy at dessert, a grill-marked olive-oil pound cake dolloped with ice cream; a solid but creamy panna cotta; a soft mascarpone cheesecake drizzled in rich caramel.
But the true revelation came at the end of the meal, when McAndrews reappeared beside our table and began repeating the same patter from an hour earlier. Verbatim.
"Wait," he stopped himself. "Did I already tell you this?"
He had. And the solution to Popolino's problems was abundantly clear: Stop talking. Get back into the kitchen and do what you do best.
Chef-owner Peter McAndrews talks
about Popolino at www.philly.com/labanreviews.
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Lemon Hill
in Fairmount. Contact him at 215-854-2682