The meatballs have finally come home to Queen Village, where Lou and Joey Campanaro began. They've been slider-ized onto mini rolls, of course, each one speared with a toothpick into a precious canape nibble - the likes of which titillated the West Village blogosphere into embracing Joey's New York restaurants, Little Owl and Market Table.
But they're steeped in Grandma's gravy, these little orbs of ground veal, pork, and beef. And that's the marinara soul of Queen Street home-cooking dripping down the sides beneath a shaving of pecorino and a toasty lid of freshly baked garlic roll. Served up now on Front Street, they come with a classic Philly view from the picture windows looking northeast from the former Frederick's.
That's the Moshulu's illuminated rigging tracing a web across the horizon. There's the mighty Ben Franklin reaching toward Camden and points due east. The speeding blur of taillights pulsing past on I-95 never looked so alive!
After so many culinary adventures with big names in glamorous locales far afield, even beyond New York - Colorado; South Beach; L.A. - the Campanaro brothers have replanted their flag in South Philly. And it's mostly a good thing - both for Lou, who runs the joint (while partner Joey consults from N.Y.C.), and for the grand old brick building itself, which has seemed so somber and lacking joy since the year-round Christmas bling at Frederick's blinked off for good two years ago.
"They were so bright," Lou says, "you could see 'em from New York."
Not to over-romanticize the old Italian party hall. The place could mount Roman kitsch with the best, stacking columns upon columns, fountains and fake flowers, tuxedoed waiters pushing carts with Sambuca, and the occasional aria. It was long past time for a makeover.
I wonder, though, even as I enjoyed much of the cooking here, if the Campanaros have gone quite far enough, both in food and decor, to make this spot relevant again.
They've done a fair job renovating the 90-seat space, stripping the 100-year-old bar in the lounge down to 26 feet of classic mahogany warmth, polishing up those intricately crafted brass door handles. They've removed old curtains to open up the dining room, pulled the walls back to exposed brick, refinished the old hardwood floors.
But there's also an awkward bric-a-brac feel to the slope-roofed main room, where wine-red Naugahyde banquettes and upholstered bent-metal tube chairs have the look of leftovers from a bar-&-grill clearance sale. There's obviously some folksy vibe rubbing off on the staff, who continuously draped themselves over the back of our elevated banquette to ask something like "You guys still workin' on that?" or "How's youse holdin' up?"
I like friendly servers. But the sloppy approach - handing us our own plates summer camp-style; flopping down beside us on the banquette to take our order - doesn't do justice to the ambitions and potential here.
Among the bright spots, the smart wine list put together by general manager Michael Romeo, another South Philly guy back from the high life in New York and L.A., is one of Village Belle's best assets. It's larger than expected, reasonably priced, and full of fun, eclectic Euro bottles such as Terlano's pinot bianco, or a gorgeously complex "old vines" Rueda verdejo from Shaya that was a perfect match for most of my meals.
The flaky seared cod over white beans, topped with a chip of crisped pancetta, for example, made a stellar pairing. An appetizer special of tender shrimp scampi, sauteed with garlicky butter tinged with chile and smoked paprika, then mounded over a bowl of sliced Serrano ham, showed the occasional Spanish accent that creeps into this Mediterranean-inspired menu. Even the ravioli stuffed with house-ground sausage, blended with turnip greens into a creamy stuffing with robiola cheese, had enough lightness and herbaceous sage in its brown butter sauce to match with a good white.
This kitchen had some inconsistencies that gave me pause. My timbale of caponata wrapped in grilled eggplant slices was chewy. The crab cakes were terrible, too thickly breaded and dry both inside and out with the lack of an obvious sauce. A plate of homemade green and white fettuccine for the "straw and hay" was overcooked and mushy.
But mainly, chef Lou, who trained at the Culinary Institute of America, started at DiLullo's, and more recently did time locally at Olive in Cherry Hill and Blackfish's outpost in Avalon, could use a little more focus in the concept here.
One moment, I'm spooning through a bowl of soft-textured ricotta cavatelli (a la Grandma) topped with a Bolognese-like mince of lobster fra diavolo. Or pan-roasted chicken with peppers in marsala mushroom sauce, on our way to a classic South Philly dessert lineup of ricotta cheesecake and "affogato," vanilla gelato topped with espresso and an amaretto cookie.
Next thing you know I'm indulging in such seasonal modern whims as seared scallops ringed with red-wine reduction beside "crimson & gold flannel hash" - a color-coded roasted-beet shout-out to fellow Lancers from Central High. Or beautifully seared lamb chops paired with grilled figs, fresh mint, and pureed butternut squash. Or a duck confit with fennel, pureed celery root, and mandarin oranges that's a light update to duck a l'orange.
For dessert, a pumpkin panna cotta topped with maple nut brittle fit the seasonal menu mood just right.
But is the Village Belle a New American bistro, or an updated ode to Nonna's Italian favorites? I'm still not sure after my meals. There are too many other examples of both in the neighborhood (some better, some worse) for the Belle to straddle that line long and be remembered.
For now, despite entree prices that hover a shade high in the mid-$20s, this spot feels less like a citywide destination, and more like a convenient neighborhood hang with a gracious old bar for amaretto-spiked Scotch cocktails called "Grandpa Lou." Yes, that was Anthony Lucidonio 3d (also known as Tony Luke Jr.) holding court with his peeps at a big table beside the windows with the Delaware River view.
But there was plenty of room (i.e. empty seats) left elsewhere to be filled. It was an icy Tuesday night. But still, a more distinct identity would help.
I do know that Campanaro can cook - if not necessarily from those soft-side pastas, then from his spot-on risotto, a tricky dish cooked to a tangy blush with tomato juice, then topped with an oozy slice of creamy burrata cheese. A Caprese turned warm to rice!
The most soulful dish here, though, was yet another clever riff on a family recipe, this one for crespelle. In a presentation twist to the Campanaro manicotti, cheese-stuffed crepes get folded into triangular little parcels (instead of being rolled into tubes), then layered onto the plate like the scales of a fish gliding over a crimson pool of marinara. Brushed with butter and Parmesan then broiled to a light crisp, the delicate crepes give way to cushions of herb-flecked ricotta that pop with the surprise of pine nuts.
It's the kind of dish that reminds how satisfying simple food can be when it's cooked with a little imagination and a genuine sense of feeling. Even better, it exudes the magnetic pull of a place - Campanaro's career may have ventured far afield, but it sure tastes like his Queen Street childhood isn't so far away.
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Liberté in the Sofitel. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org.