Every restaurateur should be so lucky to have the chance for a do-over. For Aldo Lamberti, the chain-maestro of South Jersey Italian dining, it would take no fewer than two redos to be taken seriously at his location in Old City.
After all, it began its life across from the Ritz Theatre as Pasta Blitz, an unfortunate name that conjured images of diners being mowed over by linebacker-size portions of rigatoni. The subsequent Lamberti's Cucina was simply uninspired, invoking not Aldo's stylish Caffe in Cherry Hill, but the seven frumpy pasta factories by the same name in strip malls across the tri-state area.
On his third try, however, Aldo Lamberti has struck Amalfi gold with Positano Coast. The awkward second-floor space, a glassed-in square that long ago housed Steve Poses' City Bites, now hovers like a crystal box that glows a deep Mediterranean blue.
The floors are the color of indigo. Hand-painted Italian tiles cover the columns, bar and walls. Tented white linens billow from the ceiling. Lemon and orange trees are bearing fruit near the open terrace porches. And the enormous illuminated photos that span the inside walls offer images of Positano so real - its terraced villas in flowering bloom, its whitewashed chapel domes framed by cerulean waters - you can almost smell Italian sea air wafting in off Walnut Street.
Lamberti spent more than a million dollars to reinvent this room, and his Italian architect in Florence, Pietro Del Vaglio, has created one of the most evocative spaces in town.
The new menu, however, does not take its cues from the traditional cuisine of Positano, which sits along the Amalfi Coast south of Naples in the region of Campania. Lamberti turned instead to ex-Le Bec-Fin chef Daniel Stern as a consultant to design a menu of contemporary small plates (most under $16) that redefine some Italian classics with French techniques and modern presentations.
A deconstructed osso buco Milanese is removed from its bone, the superbly tender meat posed atop a saffron risotto cake ringed by orange-saffron gravy. Toothsomely crisp veal parmesan is turned into a clever roulade in which the traditional toppings ooze from the inside out. Creamy, cheese-stuffed rigatoni stand on end in a column edged by a green halo of parsley puree.
The petite portions and emphasis on trendy raw fish crudo, emulsion sauces, and savory granitas may throw the old spaghetti-and-veal crowd for a loop. But along with a wine bar that serves interesting Italian vino by the quartino (a small carafe that holds a glass and a half), I find this an appealing concept for a pre-movie nibble.
Stern isn't cooking - in fact, the Lambertis were contractually forbidden from publicizing his name in association with the restaurant. But his imprint is evident, and Lamberti's son, Pippo, turning 25 next week, has done a nice job executing the menu with style and consistency.
Crudo, a hot trend in Manhattan that is essentially Italianized ceviche, is one of the big focuses. And the mahi crudo is sublime, a fine mince of olive-oiled fish pressed into a round on the plate that serves as a subtle canvas for the multi-textured salad tufted on top: a cascade of smoked mozzarella slivers, crisp polenta croutons, bitter radicchio, fried garlic chips, and microgreens.
The daily trio of crudos was less complex, but highlighted fresh, raw seafood in refreshingly simple preparations. Scallops tossed with radishes and lime. Rounds of razor clams mingled with celery and chile-spiced tomatoes. Striped bass shined with lemony oil. The Positano Harvest brought an equally satisfying platter of raw bar treasures - cool Malpeque oysters, marinated calamari salad, and sliced sushi tuna dusted with smoked salt. Tuna made another fine showing in the tonnato, which paired the fish in both its raw and cooked state beneath a creamy vinaigrette studded with fried capers.
There were a few duds. The fried and stuffed calamari tubes were both bizarre and difficult to handle, the thick squid tubes slipping out of their bread crusts and squirting cheese filling as we tried to eat them. The seafood canneloni was homemade, but in comparison with the light clean flavors on the rest of the menu, its bechamel-laden stuffing tasted heavy and dull. The deep-fried "tuna fingers" were another odd item that wasted good fish in the name of mass-appeal bar food.
Then again, with so many cornball dish names such as How About a Crabcake? or the Great Veal Caper, Aldo Lamberti clearly couldn't resist a little bada-boom kitsch for old time's sake.
Most of the cooking, though, demands straight-faced consideration. The lobster salad paired beautifully sweet crustacean with creamy avocado and refreshing citrus salad. Tasty little pan-fried crabcakes had an usually zesty sauce of pureed squash and mustard. A nicely seared swordfish steak came ringed with tender littleneck clams and a garlic-scented vermouth foam. A crisp red snapper streaked with pureed basil also came with addictively salty homemade potato chips.
While seafood is the core of Positano's coastal theme, meat is also well-presented. The braised short rib is as tender as the osso buco, a gravy-burnished block of beef that unfolds at the tap of a fork. A simple trio of nicely grilled lamb chops plays against salty olives and rich creamed leeks. The big veal chop was out of place on the small-plate menu, but it was luxurious all the same.
Even the strange meat-on-meat creation called N.Y. Strip Bolognese was undeniably satisfying - the chunky diced short rib ragu, almost more reminiscent of a Texas chile than bolognese, smothered the half-size slice of juicy steak.
The in-house desserts are mundane, with the usual tiramisu (too fluffy) and cannoli (so-so), as well as decent creme brulee and a respectable chocolate mousse. More intriguing are the great gelati brought in from Capogiro and the crunchy, dense chocolate-hazelnut confection from Tartes.
Perhaps there was just too little energy left for dessert after the impressive effort devoted to transforming the room, wine bar and menu at Positano Coast. But with a start like this, I don't think Aldo Lamberti is going to need a fourth do-over to get it all right at last.
Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or email@example.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/craiglaban.