I used to think it wasn't possible to have too much of a good thing, and for the longest time, that was my sentiment regarding our abbondanza of Italian BYOBs. Who doesn't want a go-to trattoria for an affordable plate of pasta and a juicy branzino within a short walk of home?
And yet, when Novità opened its doors on the 1600 block of South Street in the fall, the realization that there were nearly a dozen Italian BYOBs now within a five-block radius had an unexpected effect. As I perused the menu, my eyes began to glaze over when I saw the words calamari, gnocchi, and ravioli. The room seemed handsome enough, with exposed brick and earth-toned walls and a glint of copper pans near the open kitchen that lent the 40-seat space a hint of romantic intimacy.
But did we need another Italian BYO? What might have seemed like a sure bet in this city a few years ago elicited little more than a few shrugs now that the pasta wave had come and crested. There are plenty of mediocre penne pushers in that bunch, for sure. But timing, it seems, often trumps talent.
And as it turns out, Moroccan-born chef-owner Hassan Zanzoul came by his Italian repertoire at the source, learning to cook in Taormina, Sicily, and spending six years all told in Italian kitchens. It's pretty clear when one of his airy gnocchi melt on your tongue in a fresh plum tomato sauce brightened by shallots and basil, or when you snap a plump sauteed shrimp against soft white beans tinged with sage, that he learned a few things during his stay.
But it is Zanzoul's increasing willingness to cook the flavors of his native Morocco that has finally given this pleasant bistro its first air of distinction. The garlicky house-made merguez lamb sausage is among my favorites here, grilled to a crispy brown for an appetizer over a coarse hummuslike mash of chickpeas ringed by vibrant red charmoula sauce. It's also served as an entree over couscous alongside a brochette of big marinated grilled shrimp. The ever-cautious Zanzoul makes these skinless links with less chile heat than I'd like (and he'd like, for that matter), but this also allows the spice box of other aromatics to surge forth in a chorus of cumin, anise, paprika, and allspice that finds an echo in the tangy charmoula, a citrusy brew tinged sunburst red and smoky with paprika and cayenne.
There is a simple but satisfying plate of cool Moroccan salads, mounds of oven-roasted beets beside red-skinned potatoes, and a blend of cucumbers and tomatoes all tossed in a bright dressing of vinegar and cumin. The simple grace notes of lemon juice, cumin, and fennel turned the complimentary oil-cured olives into an all-out addiction.
There are few things more entrancing, though, than the unveiling of a tagine, when the conical ceramic lid is lifted to release a puff of cinnamony lemon steam beneath a diner's nose. When the vapors drifted away, a hearty stew of chicken and fingerling potatoes awaited, the tender meat soaking in saffron juices piqued with house-preserved lemons and green olives. Zanzoul's braised short rib is a bit heavy for summer, but it, too, has been given the magic Moroccan-stew touch that's hard to pass up. A deeply woven scent of cinnamon stick rises up when its tender shreds pull apart, dip in the gravy, and swab through the silky mashed potatoes.
With such exotic, intriguing flavors to play with, I've always wondered why Moroccan cooking hasn't influenced more local menus. There's the high-end concept cooking at untraditional Tangerine on one end, of course, and the casbah cliches of various kilim-strewn Moroccan haunts about town serving cookie-cutter banquet menus and belly dancers on the other. But there's very little in between, where a skilled chef is interpreting those authentic flavors in a more sophisticated, updated way. Zanzoul clearly has that potential.
And if this bistro could ever get a crowd to lend it some energy, and give its friendly-but-spacey servers a reason to hustle, I can see Novità becoming a nice destination for a first date. Its menu is just exotic and upscale enough for a night out, but the moderate prices (most entrees around $20 or less) make it a low-risk event.
For now, though, while Novità is evolving, its menu still very much plays it safe, with a variety of well-known Mediterranean flavors that reflect Zanzoul's training. The good news is that while many of these aren't necessarily novel, they are for the most part well cooked.
The fried calamari were notably tender, and tossed with the sweet-and-spice of hot cherry peppers and dark streaks of balsamic reduction. I had one of my first softshell crabs of the season here and it was spectacularly straightforward, crispy and plump over a fresh succotash of spinach and sweet corn. An excellent pan-roasted breast of duck, meanwhile, came fanned over an earthy mound of lentils beside a sweet slick of reduced port and apricot marmalade, plus some snappy haricots verts that tingled with house-preserved lemon. Even the house salad, tossed in a bright citrus vinaigrette, offered the pleasant bonus of little goat cheese fritters fried to a hot and creamy crunch.
The grilled Cornish game hen was among the duller dishes here, despite its rosemary and lemon marinade and some nice sagey white beans. The house-made porcini ravioli were flavorful, but in their shallot-mushroom cream sauce, they seemed far too heavy for summer. The big bowl of mussels was also fine but something of a bore, with its straight-ahead French-bistro wine broth. Novità's desserts, a spottily burnt creme brulee and a brown butter apple tart, were decent but undistinguished.
The familiar, though, didn't always fall flat. The breaded chicken cutlet with arugula salad was a deftly done take on a Milanese, the tuft of peppery greens crunching fresh against the hot, crisp meat. Those gnocchi were memorably light. A balsamic-glazed halibut special over roasted vegetables was simple but highlighted the quality of the fish, the flaky white meat edged with the sweet dark tang of balsamic.
And Zanzoul's whole fish of the day, a large branzino sauced in a tomatoey cascade of olives and capers, would have done any of the dozen or so other Italian BYOBs within walking distance proud.
And yet - I could have had that fish at a dozen or so other Italian BYOBs. Wouldn't it have been nice if that bass had shown more of a Maghreb mood, perhaps a little charge of tangy charmoula? With so many taste-alike trattorias to compete with nearby, Novità would do well to wear its exotic Moroccan pedigree even more proudly, front and center. That is one good thing, at least, that we don't have enough of yet.
Next Sunday, restaurant critic Craig LaBan visits the Jersey Shore, Part One: Fine Dining. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or email@example.com.