For the uninitiated, the food world of South Philadelphia becomes a foggy landscape below Washington Avenue.
There is, of course, that well-scouted cheesesteak crossroads where Pat's and Geno's tussle at Ninth and Passyunk. But the vast neighborhoods between the Italian Market and Veterans Stadium, especially along Broad Street, can seem like an anonymous multitude of rowhouses and funeral parlors.
Yet the area is rich with treasures: the bakeries on Ritner Street and Oregon Avenue, pint-sized hoagie heavens such as Ricci Bros., Chickie's, and Lombardi's, and intriguing sit-down spots like Criniti, Tre Scalini, Carman's Country Kitchen, Mr. Martino's Trattoria, and the Bomb Bomb Bar-be-que Grill. Even the Oregon Diner, now that it has been nicely refurbished, is a worthy blip on the weekend brunch-seeker's radar screen.
How ironic that Kathryn and Davide Faenza once counted themselves among the clueless when it came to Deep South Philly. Now, after three years at the corner of Porter and Rosewood, a half-block west of Broad, their little L'Angolo ranks among its best hidden gems.
Hidden, of course, doesn't necessarily mean undiscovered. And judging from the polished crowds that packed the cheery yellow, brick-arched rooms of this corner nook on recent Sunday and Tuesday nights, I'd say L'Angolo ("the corner" in Italian) is already inscribed on the agendas of many BYOB hounds who scour our region for great food at fair prices.
From just a glance at the bounteous plates of antipasti that line the counter of the open kitchen, I can understand why. There are shallow wedges of frittata flecked with bits of vegetables and mint, an herb that echoes the sunny flavors of Puglia, the boot-heel region of Italy that Davide Faenza left for Philadelphia a decade ago. Mint also bolsters wedges of roasted beets with garlic and the marinades of other vegetables, such as the ribbons of grilled zucchini.
A typical mixed antipasto plate includes nibbles of other treats I found difficult to not rudely hoard - earthy chickpeas baked with mushrooms, creamy Pugliese rice salad, marsala-splashed carrots, roasted tomatoes stuffed with mushrooms, an irresistible eggplant Parmesan, and a tangy potato cake layered with olives, capers and a blush of tomato. The cake, called pitta di patate, is an homage to Faenza's hometown of Gallipoli.
His menu is pure trattoria. It's hardly fancy and far from perfect (especially the pastas), but it is personal and authentic, and most entrees are priced at $16 or less.
Faenza has cooked at a number of local spots, from Mediterraneo in Horsham (where he met Kathryn, who was a waitress just back from a year in Rome) to Primavera, Il Portico and La Baia.
The grilled calamari I ordered were not only superbly tender from a daylong bath in olive oil and garlic, but also beautiful, sliced into a char-edged pompon that looked like an ivory orchid hot off the grill. The squid were also divine, paired with tender shrimp in a fiery tomato sauce.
All of the seafood items were deftly done. A grilled trio brought a lovely slice of salmon with shrimp and calamari over a mound of Italian lentils fragrant with balsamic vinegar. Perfectly sauteed monkfish arrived buried under a mountain of shellfish, including tiny cockles and shrimp. The flavors were far more elegant than the presentation, elevated with a zesty garlic and white wine broth.
The non-fish entrees were also satisfying. The balsamic-sauced chicken (a better bet than my overcooked chicken saltimbocca) luxuriated in the dark complexity of reduced balsamic that stopped just shy of being too sweet.
And virtually every veal dish was just right, with mushrooms gracing some of my favorites. Chewy porcini tumbled over tender, thin veal medallions. The veal chop propped up a garlicky ragout of oyster mushrooms and crimini. Sauteed mushrooms also plumped the centers of Faenza's braciole, veal roll-ups made from deboned chops glazed in rich, amaretto-kissed demiglace.
Perhaps the best dish was the pounded paillard, a gossamer sheet of herb-infused veal flashed on the grill and then drizzled with fragrant olive oil. Paired with creamy polenta or a dollop of pecorino-enriched mashed potatoes, this is the essence of simple but satisfying trattoria cooking - especially at $14.95.
Considering the prices, Faenza puts considerable effort into the food. But the payoff isn't always clear.
Most of the pastas, for example, are made in-house, but they aren't the restaurant's strong suit. The homemade raviolis sound appealing - stuffed with lobster in cream sauce; with spinach and ricotta in bright marinara; or an intriguing special filled with veal in truffled cream.
The flavors work, but the textures don't. The fillings are a bit dry and pasty, the skins too thick. The best by far was a special filled with peppery broccoli rabe, glazed with olive oil, and crowned with roasted garlic cloves.
Homemade pappardelle came with beautiful sauteed shrimp in a tasty white wine sauce with sun-dried tomatoes. But the wide-ribbon noodles stuck together in a clump at the bottom of the bowl. The tiny snippets of gnocchi were decent but nothing special.
There was no such problem with the wonderful penne melanzane, which cloaked al dente pasta quills in an almost fruity pomade of pureed eggplant and marinara.
Cozy, vine-painted L'Angolo has only 35 seats and exudes a natural warmth that the service unfortunately doesn't always match. Some servers seem gruff and harried. But they inevitably softened toward the end of each meal when homemade limoncello was poured, on the house. (If offered, say yes!) The dining room also seems to relax when the affable Davide or Kathryn stroll the tables.
Kathryn Faenza's greatest contribution are her wonderful desserts. None are unusual, really, but they make an impression with their sheer quality. The light mascarpone cheesecake hides the delightful surprise of a praline crust. The risotto pudding is so creamy that each grain of rice floats like a tiny balloon suspended in custard.
And her espresso chocolate torte is one of the best I've ever had, so intensely dark and silky that it triggers an exquisite calm as each hummingly rich, fudgy forkful melts in slow, slow motion.
With a beacon like that, the uncharted reaches of South Philadelphia won't seem so foggy anymore. l
Contact Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or at email@example.com