A chic and ambitious new spot brings some original touches to Northern Italian cuisine
Certainly not Giuseppe Sena. Last year, Sena, owner of Old City's La Famiglia, was busy planning Le Castagne with his chef-elect, Stefano Savino, who in turn was scouring his native Northern Italy for Botticino marble floors, Venetian leather chairs, sculptured Florentine light fixtures, and inlaid cherry veneer from Brescia, where it was being cut to span an entire wall in this chic new Philadelphia restaurant.
And I haven't been craving the polish of high-design restaurants lately, taking comfort instead in the cozy bistros popping up across the city where ambitious food is scaled to more modest budgets and warm neighborhood spaces.
So it was mildly jarring to approach the lavishly rehabbed Chestnut Street building where Le Castagne awaits, glass doors gliding open to bid diners into a room of deliberate sleekness softened only by a few white curtains.
No, with its Milanese decor and upscale menu, Le Castagne is not a restaurant crafted for troubled times. But the Sena family has a long history of offering quality dining, both at fussy, formal La Famiglia and at its neighboring wine-by-the-glass haven, Ristorante Panorama. It would be a shame if this ambitious new venue fell victim to unfortunate timing.
The most exciting aspect has been the arrival of Savino, an old friend of Sena's who left Brescia to cook here. Savino isn't the only chef in Philadelphia preparing sophisticated Northern Italian food, as Sena is apt to boast. But the 36-year-old veteran brings original touches to a menu that has more than a few surprises.
The Parmesan mousse appetizer is a dense little cheesecake; the savory nuttiness of its aged cheese contrasts with a sweet-tart garnish of red and green tomato marmalades. Celery is seldom a vegetable placed in the spotlight, but Savino's tortino an airy puree of celery and fennel that is whipped with mascarpone cheese and then baked opened my eyes to its virtues. The tart has the comforting flavor of cream of celery soup, accented with black olives and a bright tomato-and-basil sauce.
Teardrop-shaped croquettes are subtly flavored with scallops mixed with potato, while baby octopus cooked with white wine and tomatoes plays its sharper sea flavor to full advantage. Langostinos, usually a centerpiece in local restaurants, are nearly hidden inside pinwheels of chicken rollatini, lending the room-temperature appetizer a pervasive buttery sweetness.
The menu's highlights are the homemade "primi" pastas, reasonably priced at $9 to $13 and made with semolina flour that gives them the al dente snap that is Savino's Northern Italian birthright.
Thick strands of spaghetti are topped with a pungent dusting of bottarga (dried-tuna roe), adding a whiff of caviar to a sauce of cherry tomatoes and olives. Toothsome ribbons of tagliatelle twirl with sweet strands of colorful peppers into a nest that is lightly glazed with melted ricotta cheese. Squiggly trofie pasta comes with a mild garlic and olive sauce that captures the mild essence of its julienned squid and bitter broccoli rabe.
Wide, curved tubes of grooved "maccheroni" are tossed with a delicious combination of rich carbonara and basil pesto. And homemade tortelloni half-moon dumplings of gnocchi-like dough made with potato and sweet chestnut "(le castagne" in Italian) epitomize luxurious comfort in their pool of brown butter. Only the cannelloni disappointed, their mashed borlotti bean stuffing too reminiscent of chip dip.
Like that of any newcomer trying to size up a new audience, Savino's cooking occasionally seems timid. It took its least inspired turns in some of the expensive entrees and desserts. The chocolate and strawberry mousses and the hazelnut spumoni tasty, but conservative were the only notable finales.
Savino's entree pairing of lamb and shrimp was simply strange, with an overthickened, floury mushroom sauce that magnified the clash of flavors. A pine-nut-crusted grouper special was fine but boring. And overcooking robbed a poached fillet of sole, wrapped like an envelope around green beans and black olives, of its vibrance.
The duck breast wasn't entirely on the mark, either more well done than medium rare but the friction of its peppercorn crust sparking against a garnish of sweet applesauce was delightful. An excellent veal tenderloin, cut into thick, soft pillows, basked in a truffle-scented jus with polenta.
But it was the tuna steak that was most intriguing, a thick cut of fish glazed with an orange cream sauce that I'd never have guessed would work. The dish could easily have been cloying, but Savino's light hand with the cream and careful steeping of pure orange flavor made it sing.
It is this balance of invention and restraint that marked most of our meals at Le Castagne. That gentle, mature touch gives even the sleekest new restaurant on the block a welcome appeal. Craig LaBan's e-mail address is email@example.com.