Ristorante Pesto

The wood burning oven was brought over from Italy. (Photos: Jonathan Wilson)

A sad thing happens to many old ethnic neighborhoods in America's big cities. They wither to a shell of their former immigrant vibrance after half a century or so. Once the second or third generation becomes prosperous and moves to the suburbs, all that's left is impending blight and a few kitschy joints where only the tourists think the gravy or schnitzel is still worth eating.

Which is why South Philadelphia is such a treasure. I can think of no other "Little Italy" that has managed not simply to survive, but to evolve with the vitality of ours.

The refurbished Italian Market looks better than it has in years. An influx of affluent young homeowners has reestablished some once-shaky blocks. And waves of new immigrants - first Vietnamese, now Mexican - are infusing the Washington Avenue corridor with new commerce and new flavors.

Now, as if in response to the fresh energy surrounding it, the neighborhood's core Italian identity is being reinvigorated, too. In the last year, no fewer than six Italian restaurants have opened, ranging from authentic homestyle Neapolitan (Buon Appetito) to an updated take on red-gravy classics (Trattoria Lucca).

Ristorante Pesto seems a hybrid of the two. This polished dining room is operated by one of South Philly's established restaurant families, the Varallos (Io E Tu), who still remember how food tasted in the old country. And they often capture those flavors here.

One reason may be the wood-fired oven that chef and co-owner Giovanni Varallo recently brought back from Montella, the hometown in Campania he left for Philadelphia in 1971. You can see the handsome brickwork and iron gate of its hearth peeking though the kitchen at the back of Pesto's narrow but elegant dining room, which is all tile and granite tables and stained glass.

Split-oak logs glow to red embers inside the oven, and its brick dome radiates the perfect heat to sear pizza crusts crisp. In the morning, it produces flour-dusted loaves of crusty bread.

The pizza toppings are delightfully light. The simple margherita brings a splash of fresh basil-flecked tomato sauce cooked only during the pie's brief turn in the oven. The biancaneve delivers a thin, garlicky white round topped with molten mozzarella and ricotta.

But Pesto's arugula pizza is its most memorable. It is essentially a crust topped with fresh salad: juicy tomato bruschetta beneath a buoyant pile of baby arugula, shaved Parmesan, and silky pink curls of prosciutto. Glistening olive oil dribbled onto my fingers from the sides of every slice.

Varallo owns Pesto with his ebullient wife, Conchetta, and brother-in-law Claudio Conigliaro, who is also a chef at the restaurant. By the end of the year, they plan to move Io E Tu, now at Ninth and Tasker, to the space next door and merge the restaurants into one large space under the Pesto name.

I like the intimacy of Pesto as it is. The long storefront space rises up a staircase from the foyer to an elevated dining room. At lunch, you may see a couple of cops loosen their gunbelts to tackle bowls of pasta fagiole and hearty panini stuffed with mortadella. At night, an elegant woman in cashmere behind us set aside her balsamic-glazed carrots and broke into an impromptu aria at the urging of our waiter. And she wasn't bad.

Aside from the pizzas, the kitchen produces a large menu of familiar veal, pasta and seafood dishes.

Many are quite good. The homemade gnocchi are super-light potatoey puffs glazed with a cream sauce turned emerald with pesto. On another visit, we tried the pesto with homemade spaghetti, a dusting of Parmesan, and a pinch of pepper flakes (heresy, I know) that gave the rich sauce a memorable spark.

The pasta amatriciana is sweet with onions. The puttanesca has olives (the black ones, strangely, were canned) and morsels of stewed veal in a mildly spiced tomato sauce. Farfalle alla boscaiola is rich with cream, ham, mushrooms and peas, and perfumed with an elegant dusting of nutmeg.

Despite its authentic sensibilities, Ristorante Pesto frequently succumbs to a South Philly weakness for abbondanza, that tendency to overburden dishes with a kitchen sinkful of ingredients - the culinary equivalent of big hair.

There was an entire seafood shop's worth of mollusks tangled up in the lobster fra diavolo - but none was carefully cooked, especially the lobster. And though I liked the flavors of the strip-steak special stuffed with crabmeat and topped with melted cheese and mushroom-marsala demiglace, the meat was gray and overdone.

Yet, other pile-on dishes worked. A portobello special brought a deep-fried mushroom cap that was a hidden, but tasty, pedestal for crab imperial, melted mozzarella and marinara. The radicchio special looked like a heap of produce in brown sauce but tasted far more elegant, the radicchio shaved into bitter noodle-like ribbons amid sweet crab and smoky bacon in balsamic-tinged cream.

A veal chop stuffed with prosciutto and fontina cheese yielded all the satisfaction that the stuffed-steak special lacked. But for the most part, Pesto's best dishes were the simplest ones. Classic veal preparations, for example, benefited from tender meat and a gentle touch, whether sauced in marsala demiglace or crisped inside a delicate francese egg wash and topped with crabmeat napped with lemon butter.

Two simple seafood dishes, though, disappointed. The fried calamari were inedibly chewy, and an otherwise regal Dover sole bronze with toasted bread crumbs and topped with a swirl of olive oil and balsamic vinegar tasted completely unseasoned.

But there were no real letdowns at dessert. The chocolate cake was rich and satisfying. A Snickers pie dense with caramel and chocolate was hard to resist. I even liked the slightly dry tiramisu.

But without question, the best dessert was a ricotta cheesecake made from a recipe from Conchetta's side of the family. It was so light and perfectly undersweetened, so definitively South Philly, that I could have told you, had I been led blindfolded to this spot, which corner of Philadelphia I was eating in.

But isn't that the beauty of a great old neighborhood? Its inimitable spirit endures, even in a slice of cake.

Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com.