Of all the challenges a modern restaurant can tackle, refining simple dishes may be the hardest to master. Capturing that essence in a little clay crock - a few thin slivers of lightly battered eggplant, for example, artfully layered with fresh tomatoes, basil and mozzarella, then wood-roasted without turning to mush - is the rustic magic of places like Badolato.
That's the walled Calabrian village beside the Ionian Sea where Toto Schiavone spent his childhood watching his mama make lunch with produce picked that morning from the family farm. And a portrait of it glows like ancient silver-toned inspiration from a wall-size photo mural overlooking the wine bar and whitewashed dining room of Schiavone's new Radice in Blue Bell.
But it's more than just a nod to nostalgia here, like some variation on the ubiquitous mural of Venice found in a thousand suburban red-gravy joints. Schiavone and his co-owner, chef Donna Ewanciw, collaborators for nearly three decades at Moonstruck and Toto (and DiLullo Centro before that), have lit an ash-wood fire of authenticity inside the big white domed oven at the central hearth of Radice's open kitchen. And from a wide-ranging menu of terra cotta crocks, handmade pastas, rustic stews, and house-cured salumi - washed down with an affordable list of good Italian wines by the quartino - they've managed to harness that rustic Italian spirit for one of the more satisfying suburban restaurants I've visited this year.
From the list of assagi, the little crocks meant for sharing that make up the majority of this menu, there were garlicky sardines marinated with oregano and paired with the sweetness of golden raisins and roasted cauliflower. Tender cockle clams tangled with soft pasta beads of fregola sarda infused with zesty fish stock. An addictive dish of baked ricotta cheese revealed layers of peppery dandelion greens and soft, earthy polenta-fontina pudding when I spooned beneath its creamy surface. A platter of fritto misto was so masterfully fried, the translucent crusts collapsed at the touch my teeth into air perfumed with the distilled essence of red peppers, squid, fennel, and tiny whitebait.
That dish of eggplant parmigiana, meanwhile, was memorable simply because each micro-layer of eggplant, encased in a light Parmesan-anchovy batter, was still distinct and almost fruity inside the bubbling mini-casserole of fresh tomato sauce and cheese.
There are plenty of unusual inspirations here - like skewers of amazingly soft sweetbreads, parsnips, and roasted pears streaked with dark pomegranate molasses. Or those wonderful pork ribs, fork-tender and garlicky from their brine, but also sweet, smoky, and spicy from a glaze of Granny Smith apples and rendered bacon (not to mention their crunchy cabbage slaw tossed in the sweet-tart of cider vinegar rife with anise and fennel).
But reinventing some familiar classics is part of what makes Radice special, reaffirming what Moonstruck fans have known all along - that Ewanciw is one of the region's best unsung Italian chefs.
She does meatballs here, "braciolini" made from pork, pecorino, and milk-softened bread, but once those ovals have simmered in tomato gravy enriched with pork bones and sage, they manage a softness and depth of flavor that most dried-out polpetti can only dream of. The old stuffed veal cutlet gets a subtle upgrade with a core of smoked mozzarella and a light sauce enriched with sherry. Sicilian "arancini" rice balls, meanwhile, get a delicate seafood revamp, with lightly crisped pucks of butternut squash risotto sandwiching moist scallops and creamed leeks in a bright orange-squash vinaigrette.
With its focus on small plates and wood-fired flavors, Radice may not appeal to those seeking more familiar bowls of heaping pastas. In fact, there is a relatively small pasta selection here, and what pastas do come are on the piccola side. With the exception of a slightly overcooked bucatini all'amatriciana, though, most of them are excellent, especially the tender gnocchi in bubbling Gorgonzola cream topped with fried sage, and the mini-lasagnetta layered with béchamel and Bolognese. But when ravioli are as good as Ewanciw's toothsome pasta squares stuffed with Swiss chard and ricotta, I can't help but want more than three.
My primary food complaint here, though, is about the pizzas, which might naturally be a focus for most wood-oven kitchens, but account for just 10 percent of the orders here. I liked some of the unusual toppings - such as sausage, grapes, and broccoli rabe on the "pitta" - but Radice's crust lacks an essential snap, due no doubt to the hearth's multitasking distractions. It's little surprise that Ewanciw calls the Margherita "a cross I'm bearing." It's one of the few dishes here, noncommittal between Neapolitan and American preferences, that lacks a touch of passion.
You certainly get that feeling from Toto, who roams the dining room with his trademark polished dome above a dapper blazer and a smile. The man has a weakness for all-white decors - though if his old downtown spot wore special-occasion white leather, this room strives for a crisp but rustic Mediterranean touch. I'd still lower the lights a notch, because the drop ceiling kept reminding me of a deli.
But with a good carafe of vino from Radice's smart list of Italian wines - perhaps a crisp white Ciro from Schiavone's home region, or a surprisingly smooth Kris pinot noir from Lombardy, or a bottle of spicy red "Rubrato" from Campania - the journey from Blue Bell strip mall to Italian village table is not such a hard one to make.
That is especially true with Ewanciw sending out crocks of tender short ribs slow-braised in ripasso wine over cippolini onions, gratins of baby artichokes with potatoes and leeks, and hearty bowls like the triestina barley-fennel soup finished with pureed peas and mint. The rosemary-roasted chain of veal short ribs was another memorable peasant-style dish, even if it could have been better trimmed of fat - the tender pads of meat exuded a lightly smoked savor over olive oil-whipped potatoes cut by the bitter crunch of wilted radicchio.
On the slightly lighter side, Radice made one of the best fried pork chops I've had in a while, crusted in rosemary-scented crumbs and sided with orange-braised fennel. Even more delicate were the lentils topped with pan-crisped slices of red mullet, a rarity from the Ionian Sea that combines the delicacy of tiny fillets with a flaky white flesh that is surprisingly meaty. I'd travel to Blue Bell just for that.
But then, assuming I don't eat too many of Radice's excellent Italian cheeses (creamy quadrello di bufula; truffled Sottocere, onctuous Gorgonzola cremificato), I definitely wouldn't miss the cannoli, either.
I know, I know: we know cannolis. But Ewanciw manages to elevate yet another familiar pleasure into something special and different, shaping fragile pastry tubes from wafer-thin pistachio cookies, then piping them full of limoncello-kissed ricotta cream. Simplicity refined masterfully, just in time for dessert.