LaBan revisits Zeppoli: Passion in every dish

3 x 2 zeppoli
The rabbit entrée at Zeppoli in Collingswood, N.J.

Joey Baldino is a 37-year-old South Philly native. But he cooks with the hands and heart of a Sicilian twice his age.

If you've experienced the profoundly deep flavors he's able to coax from a morsel of rabbit "pizzaiola," or if you've dared nibble a forkful of his velvety tripe, you know this is a compliment of the highest order.

The mild-mannered Baldino, whose close-shaven crown can be seen bopping happily each night behind the open kitchen at his cozy Zeppoli in Collingswood, can also be painfully shy. He declined to have his picture taken this time around.

It seems about right, though, that the chef's hands should be the focus of the close-ups - pressing dimples into the daily baked focaccia, spoon-basting rosemary oil over the blazing-hot pan of his juicy oven-roasted chicken literally every minute, shaving salty flakes of bottarga roe over gossamer tagliatelle glazed in a lemony froth of olive oil and pasta water.

Baldino's hands-on approach, along with help from sous-chef Landon Cucinotta, is exactly what has made Zeppoli so compelling as one of the region's very best Italian restaurants - and, at 32 seats, perhaps more personal than most. The essence of this rustic food is its simplicity. But it rises on the spark of intuition that can be learned only through years of repetition. How does he keep that thick cut of grilled swordfish so juicy? How does he get that sheer crackle beneath the airy crust of his pan-baked tomato pie?

Such dogged pursuit of refined details on a core menu that, by design, has changed little since he opened, would bore many other young talents. So many slide easily from style to style and kitchen to kitchen, planing their inevitable ascent from starter BYO to a larger, more lucrative restaurant format (maybe even with the investor-assist of a reality TV gig). And I wouldn't presume to predict such opportunities might not one day tempt Baldino, too.

But the longtime Vetri lieutenant who opened Zeppoli four years ago (my first review, in fact, appeared exactly four years ago this week), claims nothing still satisfies him more than crossing the bridge from his Queen Village home to cook in his little South Jersey BYOB wrapped in warm wood, sepia-toned family pictures, and curtains trimmed with lace: "I wake up every morning happy to go cook."

I could already taste that passion for authentic Sicilian food four years ago, though the sparsely appointed room reached such uncomfortable ear-numbing noise levels I held back from a higher rating. And Zeppoli remains a noisy room, simply by the laws of tiny-restaurant physics. But the chef has also spent thousands of dollars to use sound-absorbing paint, add curtains near the door, and tuck noise-dulling foam beneath the tables and chairs, knocking a few decibels off the old sound meter.

At a slower Monday-night dinner (try Wednesdays, too), the flavors are what spoke to me loudest, clearly bonging three bells as each polished dish resonated with such depth of character I could taste them in my mind for days.

That rabbit is braised so carefully in wine and tomatoes that those elements literally meld into one, the meat just barely still clinging to the bones beneath dusky green oregano leaves. Basil is the sweet herb that adds a fresh zing to the tomato sauce that coated toothy rigatoni and melty cubes of roasted eggplant. Sheep's milk ricotta gnocchi ribboned with spinach melted away at the bite beneath a gloss of brown butter and sage.

The grilled swordfish steak, at $38, was easily the most expensive dish. But the inch-thick 12-ounce slab was also big enough to share, and so amazingly moist beside the anise crunch of shaved fennel salad tossed in sweet orange vinaigrette, it was as good as a swordfish can be. Ditto for the garlic- and herb-infused roasted chicken.

And though such menu standards are the backbone of Zeppoli's allure (is there a better house-made fennel sausage anywhere?), there are always new dishes to discover with the nightly specials, which longtime servers like Jessica Mckeever revel in selling.

Those dishes trend toward adventurous tastes but reward with the power of peasant cooking done right - like the Ragusa-style tripe, which takes four days to make. Once those honeycombed morsels have passed from a daylong milk bath to a brine, a cleansing boil, a tenderizing braise, and then a 21/2-hour simmer in tomatoes braced with lemon and oregano, they melt with a soulful softness more familiar meats simply cannot replicate.

Baldino's spaghetti con sepia, meanwhile, is a stunning pasta blackout, with tender squid tangled in spaghetti whose garlicky oil sauce thickens with squid ink that darkens to a midnight glaze as it heats, adding both sweetness and a faint marine umami beneath the crunch of basil bread crumbs.

We were so full, we almost passed on dessert - until my spoon slipped into a remarkably creamy biancomangiare custard, and I marveled that this almond-milk panna cotta was entirely dairy-free. And then, of course, there were the zeppoli, the hot "sfinge" fritters that are rightfully the restaurant's namesake sweet.

Just another doughnut? Hardly. Those sugar-dusted rounds are so airy and light. And like everything else at Zeppoli, they exude the contentment of a chef who wakes up every day and cooks the food that he loves. Is there anything more satisfying than when we can taste that, too?

claban@phillynews.com

215-854-2682

@CraigLaBan

www.philly.com/craiglaban


EXCELLENT (3 bells out of 4)

ZEPPOLI

618 Collings Ave., Collingswood; 856-854-2670; zeppolirestaurant.com

 

After four years at this tiny BYOB, Joey Baldino has mastered the art of traditional Sicilian cooking, refining the subtleties and soulfulness to take seemingly simple and rustic plates to a place of deep satisfaction. Some work has been done to dampen the noise issues of this homey little dining room. It's still noisy. But the chef's steady presence has shaped Zeppoli into one of the most personal Italian dining experiences in not just South Jersey, but the entire region.

MENU HIGHLIGHTS Antipasto; finocchi salsiccia; shrimp and cannellini beans; spinach-ricotta gnocchi; tagliatelle al limone; spaghetti vongole; spaghetti con sepia; pesto Trapanese; Sicilian carbonara; half-chicken; swordfish steak; coniglio pizzaiola; Ragusa-style tripe; zeppoli; biancomangiare.

DRINKS BYOB. Think Sicilian.

WEEKEND NOISE This boisterous little trattoria can still be extremely noisy. But some modest soundproofing has brought the din down to the low-90s (from previously in the high-90s). Midweek meals trend quieter. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)

IF YOU GO Dinner Wednesday through Monday, 5-10 p.m. Closed Tuesday.

Entrees, $19-$38.

All major cards.

Reservations highly suggested.

Not technically wheelchair accessible. (One step at entrance, but bathrooms are accessible).

Free parking lot behind and in front of restaurant.


RECIPES

Joey Baldino's Tomato Pie

Makes 8 servings

2 pounds bread flour, or 6 1/3 cups

1 ounce fresh yeast or 2 packets (1/4-ounce each)

dried active yeast

1 pinch sugar

2 tablespoons kosher salt

2 cups water

6 tablespoons fine extra-virgin olive oil, divided equally into 3 parts (about 2 tablespoons each)

2-3 cups favorite tomato sauce (see Baldino's recipe)

 

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. (If you are going with the dry yeast over the fresh, make sure to put dry packets in the water with the sugar and let stand until the yeast becomes activate and becomes very foamy before adding in the flour.) Mix flour, yeast, sugar, water, and two tablespoons of olive oil in mixer attached with a bread hook. Mix on medium speed for 6 minutes, then add salt. Mix for an additional 3 minutes.

2. After dough has mixed for 9 minutes total, place in a lightly oiled bowl and let rise in warm area for 45 minutes covered. After dough has risen by double, punch it down and then place on a half-sheet tray (about 9x13-inch) greased with 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Let rise again for additional 45 minutes.

3. After it has risen a second time, push it down again and press fingers into the dough to create dimpled wells in the surface. Drizzle with 2 tablespoons more olive oil, making sure the oil is pooled in dimples and bake for 15 minutes. Take focaccia out of the oven and top with favorite tomato sauce and bake for an additional 20 minutes, until golden brown. Drizzle with 2 tablespoons more olive oil and serve.

Per serving: 653 calories; 17 grams protein; 93 grams carbohydrates; 10 grams sugar; 28 grams fat; no cholesterol; 2,112 milligrams sodium; 9 grams dietary fiber.


Joey Baldino's Salsa Pomodoro

Makes 4-6 servings

1 35-ounce can of San Marzano tomatoes

1 cup water

1 large red onion, minced

4 garlic cloves, minced

1/2 cup good extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon sea salt

1 large bunch basil

 

1. Combine the tomatoes and water in a large bowl and break them up with your hands so tomatoes are just crushed.

2. In a separate pot, sauté red onion, garlic, and the hand-torn basil in oil over medium-low heat for approximately 20 minutes until vegetables melt, but do not brown. Add tomatoes and water and let simmer uncovered for approximately one hour. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Per serving (based on 6): 221 calories; 4 grams protein; 16 grams carbohydrates; 10 grams sugar; 17 grams fat; no cholesterol; 1,255 milligrams sodium; 6 grams dietary fiber.


Zeppoli's Coniglio (rabbit) Pizzaiola

Makes 4-6 servings

1 whole rabbit (cut into pieces)

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 red onion, minced

1 white onion, minced

1 cup dry white wine

4 garlic cloves, minced

2 bay leaves

2-3 sprigs each of basil and oregano, tied together with string

1 35-ounce can of San Marzano tomatoes

1/4 cup of picked fresh oregano leaves

 

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Season rabbit with salt and pepper. Heat vegetable oil in rondeau or Dutch oven and sear rabbit until golden brown on all sides. Remove, set aside.

3. Add olive oil to pot and sweat the vegetables and herb bouquet for a few minutes.

4. Add rabbit back to the pot, and deglaze with white wine.

5. Once the wine is reduced by half, add crushed tomatoes and season with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer. Place the rondeau covered in the oven to braise for one and a half hours. Check to see whether it's tender enough that the meat is almost falling off the bone (but not too much!) and return to oven for no more than an additional 15 minutes if necessary.

6. Remove rabbit from pan and set aside covered in warm area.

7. Strain sauce through fine mesh strainer or pass through a food mill with finest hole grate.

8. Place rabbit on serving dish, cover with sauce, leaves of freshly picked oregano. A good accompaniment is roasted potatoes.

Per serving (based on 6): 429 calories; 38 grams protein; 20 grams carbohydrates; 11 grams sugar; 19 grams fat; 93 milligrams cholesterol; 375 milligrams sodium; 4 grams dietary fiber.


Fennel Salad with Orange Vinaigrette

Makes 4-6 servings

3 oranges, juiced

1/4 cup white wine vinegar

1 cup olive oil

2 fennel bulbs, sliced crosswise very thin (about 1/8 inch)

1 orange, sliced crosswise to medium thickness

Salt and pepper to taste

Italian parsley for garnish

Oil-cured black olives, for optional garnish

 

1. Combine orange juice with white wine vinegar and slowly whisk in the olive oil. Mix vigorously and set aside.

2. Shave two bulbs of fennel very thinly, preferably on a mandolin, to about 1/8-inch thick. Season with salt, pepper, and parsley.

3. Toss fennel and orange mixture with dressing and serve on a cool plate. Oil-cured black olives are an additional option for this simple yet refreshing salad.

Per serving (based on 6, without garnishes): 372 calories; 2 grams protein; 20 grams carbohydrates; 12 grams sugar; 34 grams fat; no cholesterol; 91 milligrams sodium; 5 grams dietary fiber.


Biancomangiare (Almond Milk Panna Cotta)

Makes 8 servings

7 sheets gelatin

5 cups unsweetened almond milk

1/2 tablespoon vanilla extract

3/4 cup sugar

Fresh berries for garnish

Toasted slivered almonds for garnish

 

1. Bloom gelatin sheets in ice water until soft, about five minutes. Meanwhile, in sauce pot, heat almond milk, vanilla, and sugar to a medium simmer and cook for 3 minutes.

2. Remove gelatin from ice water and carefully squeeze off any excess water, then stir in to the milk-sugar mixture. Divide evenly into 8 individual 4-ounce cups and refrigerate overnight. (You can use ramekins or disposable aluminum muffin tins if unmolding for presentation.)

3. Can serve as-is in nice cups, or unmold onto a plate by dipping molds very briefly into a hot-water bath and then carefully flipping over onto a plate.

4. Serve with your favorite berries and toasted almonds.

Per serving (without garnishes): 146 calories; trace protein; 20 grams carbohydrates; 19 grams sugar; 2 grams fat; no cholesterol; 113 milligrams sodium; trace dietary fiber.


Zeppoli

618 Collings Ave., Collingswood; 856-854-2670, www.zeppolirestaurant.com.

After four years at this tiny BYOB, Joey Baldino has mastered the art of traditional Sicilian cooking, refining the subtleties and soulfulness to take seemingly simple and rustic plates to a place of deep satisfaction. Some work has been done to dampen the noise issues of this homey little dining room. It's still noisy. But the chef's steady presence has shaped Zeppoli into one of the most personal Italian dining experiences in not just South Jersey, but the entire region.

MENU HIGHLIGHTS

Antipasto; finocchi salsiccia; shrimp and cannellini beans; spinach-ricotta gnocchi; tagliatelle al limone; spaghetti vongole; spaghetti con sepia; pesto Trapanese; Sicilian carbonara; half-chicken; swordfish steak; coniglio pizzaiola; Ragusa-style tripe; zeppoli; biancomangiare. Entrees, $19-$38.

DRINKS

BYOB. Think Italian, but especially Southern Italian, focusing on wines from Sicily or Campania. Deep reds (like Nero d'Avola) or exotic whites (like Inzolia, Malvasia di Lipari, or anything from Sicily's star winery, Planeta) is perfect for Zeppoli's cuisine.

WEEKEND NOISE

This boisterous little trattoria can still be extremely noisy. But some modest soundproofing has brought the din down to the low-90s (from previously in the high-90s). Midweek meals trend quieter. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)

IF YOU GO

Dinner Wednesday through Monday, 5-10 p.m. Closed Tuesday.

Not technically wheelchair accessible (there are two steps at entrance, but restaurant can make accommodations with notice. Bathroom is accessible).

Free lot in rear; street parking.