Listen carefully beneath the joyous din that vibrates through the wood-floored confines of Modo Mio, and you may hear the staccato song of hand-waving Italians at a neighboring table arguing literature over homemade tagliatelle and politics over grilled spicy frog legs with green apples.
On the other side of this narrow, 40-seat room, where an antique buffet holds a tall glass decanter of complimentary sambuca steeping with rosemary and lemon peels, you are more likely to hear the hunger-inducing crunch of slices being sheared off an enormous 20-pound loaf of homemade Umbrian country bread. Along with plates of olive oil dolloped with ricotta cheese, they're whisked off to welcome yet another table of arriving guests.
And they've been coming in droves since Peter McAndrews opened his homey BYOB homage to Italy this spring. It's not just the local Italo-philes who lend this hot spot its stamp of authenticity, but also a surprising number of Main Liners in bright golf pants, Boyds shirts, and big jewelry, whose unlikely trek to Girard Avenue in Kensington (just west of Fishtown, just north of Northern Liberties) confirms that this pleasant corner has acquired bona fide destination buzz.
It's little wonder. The rustic flavors here are just as genuine and inviting as the sounds that fill the room. And they're presented with a simplicity and affordability (four courses for $30!) that feels true to the spirit of Italy's neighborhood osterias, which are smaller, more quirky, and a shade more homey than a trattoria.
I already knew McAndrews had a passion for Italian food, as evidenced by the thin-crusted pizzas he brought to his most recent post at Rembrandt's. But the full range of his year-long training in Italy (six months in Piedmont; six months in Molise) is reflected in this menu of small plates. They can be eaten a la carte, but were designed with the four-course turista menu in mind - a taste of antipasti followed by pasta, a meat or fish, and a homespun dolce.
As the name Modo Mio ("My Way") implies, McAndrews delivers personalized takes on traditional Italian ideas. Homemade ravioli pouches plumped with pureed artichoke and mascarpone (actually agnolotti) shine with sage-infused brown butter and toasted almonds. Crisply "panelle" squares of creamy-centered chickpea cakes lie beneath shrimp sauteed with a zesty sweet-and-sour pepper relish. Sweet little scallops tumble with crumbled sausage over linguine in a carbonara-style froth enriched with yolks and pecorino cheese.
I don't want to overblow Modo Mio - McAndrews is not the second coming of Mario Batali. There are still too many little flaws in execution here - too much al dente crunch in the ravioli's seam; too much raw chew in an undercooked eggplant side; a redundance of sauce flavors that repeat across the menu; and an occasionally dull dish, like the humdrum mussels or the surprisingly dry mozzarella-stuffed bread.
Modo Mio also has service issues to conquer. Our waitress had a bubbly enthusiasm that we had to love. But she was also brimming with numerous tidbits of misinfomation, like the aside that the chocolatey Nutella inside the crepes is made with peanuts (actually, it's hazelnuts), a slip with potential ramifications for those with allergies.
The harried back service team, which spilled red wine on my guest's white shirt, then offered little more than a "sorry" and dubious free advice ("You should try white vinegar on that!"), should also know not to remove empty plates while others at the table are still eating.
It was an oddly rushed moment for a place that in virtually every other respect celebrates the leisurely pace of a European-style multicourse meal.
And there were many highlights worth lingering over. The tender grilled frogs' legs have a lively spark with crunchy green apples and herbed mayonnaise. Tart green apples returned later in the meal to add a little extra interest to the otherwise dry breaded chicken.
McAndrews' pastas are worthwhile. His pillowy potato gnocchi melted on the tongue with the sublime luxury of earthy porcini cream. Homemade tagliatelle tangled with a hearty ragu of prosciutto nubs, veal and chicken liver. A bucatini special evoked the south with a saute of mussels, arugula and fava beans that flickered with heat in a spicy sauce of white wine and olive oil.
The "secondo" entrees were modestly portioned but packed with good flavors. Pork loin was turned into a light rendition of saltimbocca, the tender meat flavored with sage, prosciutto and provolone. A meltingly soft veal cheek rose on the piquance of capers and black olives. A "scaloppine"-thin slice of duck breast luxuriated in a tangy red-wine gravy fruited with cherries.
A thick fillet of crispy red snapper was graced with a lively "acqua pazza" tomato broth that brought a blend of sweet peppers and chile- flake spice. The usual tuna steak found intrigue in a great combination of roasted beets and mushrooms.
Like the rest of the meal, desserts are simple, but satisfyingly homespun, from a panna cotta as light as whipped cream to the decadent chocolate budino pudding. My favorite, though, was a refreshing glass of berries and ladyfingers blanketed in a frothy zabaglione tarted up with purple pomegranate juice.
Wash it down with a brimming shot glass of complimentary sambuca, the sweet anise liqueur edgy with citrus peels and herbs, and the meal at Modo Mio ends with a warmth that lingers.
In the "Or Try These" section of the Aug. 19 Dining Review, the name of Restaurant Alba was given incorrectly as Ristorante Alba.