It is hard to imagine a need or niche that is left for another new Italian restaurant in South Philadelphia.
But that didn't deter Luke Palladino, who picked up one of his prosciutto-wrapped, truffle-buttered bread sticks and waved that magic wand over a forlorn corner of East Passyunk Avenue.
On that sharply angled parcel just east of Broad Street, the humble building with a caved-in roof was the former Colombo's, once known for tripe and house-baked bread. And Palladino has given it a thoroughly swanky revamp, from the posh interior with padded alcove banquettes and a sleek marble bar, to an exterior trimmed with a handsome portico for al fresco dining, and boldly striped walls wrapped in horizontal black-and-white bands to evoke a Sienese cathedral.
He kindled oak-log flames beneath a new grill to sear huge T-bones of bistecca Fiorentina; installed a double-deck stone oven dedicated to baking the paper-thin Ligurian focaccia di Recco, whose crackery crusts sandwich a creamy ribbon of tangy stracchino cheese. With his self-named Palladino's, the chef has wedged his way - both literally and figuratively - front and center onto the neighborhood's main stage, as the glam new gateway to the city's hottest dining strip.
Palladino is a big name at the Jersey Shore - well-loved for his early restaurants at the Borgata, then, later, his more personal Northfield BYOB. But he is also well-aware of South Philly's century-plus Italian roots. Though much change and diversity has come to the neighborhood of late, there is still a treasure chest of Italian options there from multiple eras and regions, from old-school Italo-American meatballs to the balsamic-splashed plates and pile-it-on veal chops of the post-red-gravy generation, to the more recent wave of authentic, regionally focused updates.
Palladino's brings, among other things, a distinctively ritzy new polish to an avenue that has so far specialized in projects with more understated sophistication. More shiny black cars with Jersey plates humming at the valet stand. A big wine list with more than 100 Italian labels overseen by Palladino's able former Borgata somm, Jeffrey DiMaio. Too many flat-screen TVs in the dining room for my taste.
But there is also the plus of those casino-size chops. All 32 ounces of that perfectly cooked T-bone rubbed with espelette pepper and fennel pollen is imbued with the searing scent of wood fire and the complexity of well-aged meat. The two-inch-thick cut of pasture-raised veal chop infused with rosemary is luxuriously tender beneath a creamy flow of mushrooms and wine. The earthy Kobe rib cap is a $48 splurge for carnivores who prize intense marbling over tenderness.
Luke Palladino delivers them all with the sure hand of a chophouse vet who knows the mass-appeal of a great steak - something South Philly lacks (aside from the Saloon on its better nights). With a crock of creamy Tuscan kale gratin on the side, or a Parmigiano-crusted "gâteau" of mashed potatoes layered with mortadella and Trugole cheese, there's potential here to lure some crowds away from some of Center City's steak chains.
What's more interesting, though, is that Palladino's game goes far beyond red meat. The chef spent five years in Italy cooking from Palermo to Puglia, the Piemonte and Venice, and brings a particular affinity for Northern Italian specialties (also scarce in South Philly), served with an elegant modern touch.
His smoked ricotta and beet-stuffed casonsei are a signature I never tire of, the earthy sweetness of those candy-wrapper-shaped dumplings amped by the buttery sheen studded with crushed poppy seeds. Delicate tortelloni, stuffed with creamy burrata topped with the saline pop of caviar, bob in a bracing tomato water brightened with herbs. Airy snips of melt-away potato gnocchi practically dissolve against crispy cubes of smoked pancetta (Roman-style "alla Gricia") and the bitter crunch of Brussels sprout leaves.
Much of Palladino's menu is drawn directly from rustic traditions - such as his love of cockscombs, which lend a gelatinous thickener to his offal sugo, or a surprisingly delicate snap when deep-fried for an apt crown on his Genovese-style skewer, also threaded with deep-fried sweetbreads, mortadella, and a veal-ricotta meatball.
The focaccia di Recco, fast-baked in black steel pans, is straight from Liguria, but a complete novelty here. I predict its magnetic delicacy, with almost phyllo-crisp wafers of dough stuffed with a micro-thin sheen of drippy, tangy cheese, will soon become one of the city's most coveted plates.
Palladino has a slight tendency toward too much sweetness on some savory dishes: in the Sambucca that splashes the salty sautéed caciocavallo cheese; also the fruit-mostarda mayo that accompanies the stecchini. I also wish all the tender threads of wine-braised oxtail ragu had been better incorporated into the porcini-tinted pappardelle and not fallen to a tangled clump at the bottom.
But with noticeably professional servers to pace our meal and guide us through the wine list - Cantine di Indie's Vino del Popol nebbiolo blend was a knockout glass for the bistecca; Brunori's verdicchio spot-on for the moist branzino - the small complaints were more than compensated for by Palladino's many successes.
Among my other favorites were a juicy duck sausage roasted with pickled grapes over goat-cheese-whipped polenta; the baked crepselle rolled around wild mushrooms enriched with Taleggio; a refined casino take on oysters (instead of clams) that roasted those mollusks to perfection. A house-extruded pasta was the secret al dente weapon that elevated the spaghetti alle vongole with tender cockles in flavorful broth to another level.
The pork osso bucco, glossed in dark jus studded with pickled mustard seeds over herbed farro, was a convincing change-up from the usual veal (complete with marrow scoop!). Palladino gives Cornish hen an edgy swagger by stuffing the boneless bird and wrapping it in crisp pancetta, then ladling Venetian liver sauce on top. Thick chunks of herb-marinated swordfish, skewered with bay leaves over white beans greened in lemony Sicilian marjoram sauce, proves the wood grill works wonders on fish, too.
If overly sweet notes in savory courses are an occasional flaw, the actual desserts are Palladino's weakest course. Not that there was anything terribly wrong with the olive oil cake and blood orange marmalade, or the homemade tartufo, the fresh cookie platter with sticky torrone, or even the house-made fresh cannoli. But they did not surprise with the fresh perspective and elegance that Palladino brings to so many other aspects of Italian cucina we thought we already knew.
What South Philly already has, if nothing else, are some of the best cannolis in the world. Now with Palladino's, it also has a worthy new star.
EXCELLENT (3 BELLS OUT OF 4)
1934 E. Passyunk Ave., 267-928-4339;
Long a star at the Jersey Shore, Luke Palladino brings his stylish regional Italian cuisine to the big city in a swanky, striped wedge of a building at the southern gateway of East Passyunk Avenue, where wood-grilled chops and elegant updates to classic flavors anchor the city's hottest dining strip with a fresh, upscale polish. The sleek interior with padded banquette nooks, a large Italian wine list, and big-ticket prices will evoke the chef's Borgata casino days, but Palladino's consistent, hand-crafted excellence proves that he belongs and that Philly still has room for another great Italian restaurant.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Truffled grissini; mushroom crespelle; duck sausage; oysters casino; grilled radicchio; stecchini Genovese; focaccia di Recco; smoked ricotta-beet casonsei; gnocchi alla gricia; spaghetti alle vongole; bistecca alla Fiorentina; kobe rib cab; veal chop; pollo en porchetta; swordfish spiedino; pork osso bucco; whole fish in "crazy water"; potato gateau; Tuscan kale alla parmigiana; olive oil cake with blood orange; tartufo.
DRINKS A substantial cellar offers 100 selections, with 20 regions of Italy represented. There are 15 solid choices by the generous 6-oz. glass (Brunori "le Gemme" verdicchio; Cantine di Indie "Vino del Popolo"), and worthy bottles at two-and-a-half to triple-cost mark-ups: La Stoppa Trebbiolo from Emilia Romagna, $80 (for the veal chop); Sicilian Calabretta, $95 (a splurge for the big steak). Foradori, Occhipinti, San Lorenzo, Ghisolfi, Corzano e Paterno are other names to look for. There's a small selection of craft beers (Round Guys, Stillwater, Baladin), and an able list of classic cocktails (Negroni, Sazerac, Corpse Reviver) given an Italian twist.
WEEKEND NOISE Padded walls and recessed booths work well with light crowds, but the tight quarters still reach the noisy high-80s when full. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)
IF YOU GO Dinner, 5-10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; bar menu until 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday. Brunch Sunday, 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Dinner entrees, $18-$48 (bistecca Fiorentina for two, $75).
All major cards.
Reservations highly suggested.
Valet parking $12 Tuesday through Sunday.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews El Poquito in Chestnut Hill.