If you've eaten much in Collingswood over the last decade, you know that the menu flavors usually come in Italian, Italian, or Italian.
It is curious, then, that chef Joey Baldino would choose such a crowded field to debut his own Italian BYOB, Zeppoli. And it is all the more remarkable that his food is so distinctive and soulfully wrought that it has instantly risen above that crowd.
The secret? It's not flashy presentation or contemporary innovation. It's about focusing in on one particular under-explored region - Sicily - and tapping the essence of every dish with finesse and a feeling of authenticity, honed on the island cooking alongside one of its masters.
Handmade tagliatelle al limone, for example, comes tossed with just a few ingredients. But this minimalist combination is spun in such harmony that it is positively transporting, the fresh snap of buttery pasta ribbons, a sunbeam of lemon, and the flickering warmth of chile flake heat, the caviarlike twang of shaved bottarga tuna roe echoing like waves on a Palermo beach.
Or how about the sublime rabbit pizzaiola, the oregano-rubbed meat braised to tenderness in a ripe red cloak of San Marzano tomatoes? I've had plenty of homemade sausage, but Baldino's is somehow memorable, the house-ground Berkshire pork shoulder more tender than most, and fragrant with fennel and the swagger of Sicilian red wine.
It's no wonder the cognoscenti are flocking to this 35-seat nook - especially given Baldino's pedigreed stops at Vetri, Osteria, and Amada - which brings cars from across the Ben Franklin Bridge, too.
But do they all have to be so obnoxiously noisy? I'm not just talking normal loud. I mean an ear-pounding 98 to 102 decibels. The six ladies near the front window drank so much vino they busted out into show tunes - and still weren't the noisiest table. The deafening chain reaction of talk-overs ensued until I couldn't hear the guest sitting next to me unless she spoke directly into my ear.
Baldino, 33, didn't anticipate the problem until he was done converting the space from IndeBlue (which moved across the street) and opened for "friends and family" preview night. And for this South Philly native, who saved up by living with his parents at 11th and Tasker (where the saintly Mamma Regina still leaves him a plate for dinner every night!), those family ties are supernaturally strong.
"But now it's like friends and family night in here every night!" concedes Baldino. "I've got acoustical panels on my desk that I'm looking at."
Look at something, please! This cozy little room, with its dark wood wainscoting, antique photos and pendant lights, rustic wood tables, and lace-trimmed windows, could have all the charm of a genuine Sicilian trattoria. But with my head beaten numb as a noodle by the din on both visits, I won't hand over an otherwise deserved third bell until it's fixed.
It's a significant gripe, but also one of the few complaints I have with Zeppoli, which ranks among the most compelling restaurants I've visited in South Jersey in quite some time. Baldino is one of the few local chefs to focus on Sicily's unique and vibrant flavors - citrus, pistachios, sweet-and-sour agrodolce, among others. (Monsù, in the Italian Market, does too, but not with as much finesse.) With years of training in Vetri's kitchens, and a half-year sabbatical at the estate of Sicilian legend Anna Tasca Lanza, Baldino's technical prowess can be expected.
A baked orata with crispy potatoes gilded by slow-cooked artichokes and caper berries, and oil-cured, was the juiciest whole fish I've eaten this year. Goat stewed in milk to sublime tenderness is finished to a crisp in the oven with a crust of herbed lardo. Addictive little twists of Sicilian fusilli come tossed in a vivid green pesto "Trapanese" made from pistachios, almonds, and basil so fragrant it seduces your senses before you even take a bite. And then I took many.
Same for the mezze rigatoni tossed with roasted eggplant and basil bread crumbs in a chunky tomato sauce that has that elusive touch of a knowing Italian hand. Huge fresh head-on shrimp are put on a white bean pedestal sparked with lemon and chiles. A hearty bowl of fisherman's stew brings calamari, clams, shrimp, and cod basking in an exotic cinnamon- and clove-scented broth beaded with Tunisian couscous.
This young kitchen wasn't quite flawless. The shaved fennel and orange salad atop the swordfish reminded me of a dish I ate in Palermo - but the fish itself, on the thin side, was dry. The roasted rosemary chicken breast could have been more tender. The clam spaghetti was too buttery, and lacking some briny depth. The marinated ribeye steak was amazingly flavorful (a garlicky smear of herbed lardo paste will do that), but at $29, the most expensive entree on a menu hovering in the low 20s, it was hardly a reason in itself to visit.
Dishes like the tender spinach gnocchi in brown butter with caciocavallo cheese, or those marinated fresh grilled sardines, however, definitely are.
The daily antipasto board - laden with perfect eggplant caponata tinged with cocoa (another Sicilian touch), white beans and tuna, soppressata, Mancuso mozzarella, and a frittata with saffron potatoes and caciocavallo cheese, among other delights - was notably more substantial and satisfying than the last one I ate at Osteria.
Baldino, though clearly indebted to Vetri and Garces for his culinary polish, is also quick to pay homage to his humble South Philly roots. You taste it in the slow-steeped peppery spice of the broccoli rabe that sits beneath his homemade sausage. And I can feel the influence of Mr. Martino's, where Marc and Maria Farnese gave Baldino his first busboy job as a teen, as an inspiration for familial warmth that almost fills this room.
With one of my senses knocked mute by the din, though, I just couldn't quite feel it until dessert, once we'd polished off the airy zeppole beignets with warm Nutella, a sour lemon tart, and a dish of fantastic Sicilian gelati and sorbetti (pistachio, torrone, and colorful prickly pear) crowned with one of Mamma's pizzelle. The loudmouth crowds at last began to ebb, and Baldino made the rounds, engaging his new fans with heartfelt greetings and a bottle of limoncello "made by my Pop."
I'd drive the short trip from Center City any night for another taste. But hopefully that noise problem will be fixed. I'd rather bring a third bell, instead of an Advil chaser.
Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan hosts an online chat at 2 p.m. Tuesdays at http://go.philly.com/phillytalk.
Contact Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682, on Twitter @CraigLaBan or firstname.lastname@example.org.