RATING |

So much energy and attention has been lavished upon our recent crop of charming little Italian BYOBs that it would be easy to forget the pleasures of a nice wine list in a grander, more upscale space.

Just take a sip of cool Conundrum at the polished granite bar and let Paradiso be a nice reminder.

This four-month-old contemporary Italian is not only the latest entry in East Passyunk Avenue's dining revival, it is the most elegant addition to the South Philly dining scene since Kristian's in 1998.

Owner and chef Lynn Marie Rinaldi, 40, grew up on 12th Street just two blocks away, and she vividly recalls a childhood strolling the vibrant avenue with a lemon water ice from Mancuso's in her hand. So perhaps there was a tug of nostalgia working its way into her imagination when she "fell in love" with the shell of Bob's Arcade.

But her transformation of the long-vacant appliance store is convincing. Folding glass cafe windows now adorn the double-wide storefront, just waiting to fold open onto sidewalk tables and warm weather. Inside the spacious ground-floor room, buttercup-colored walls lined with a cranberry-striped banquette stretch back past the cheese cart to an open kitchen where Rinaldi toils away, dabbing garlicky bruschetta with silky white-bean puree.

Her Italian-centric menu has a number of other highlights, from updates of classics such as rabbit cacciatore to lighter Mediterranean takes such as grilled tuna with shaved fennel.

But Paradiso stands out for other reasons. For one, it is even larger than it initially seems, with a second-floor dining room that allows the restaurant to seat more than 160 and easily accommodate weekly live jazz.

Paradiso's wine program is also quite ambitious. The list of 60-plus labels was orchestrated by manager Jeff DiMaio, a veteran Borgata sommelier, and succeeds in targeting both quality and value, with not only good Italian wines, but also a smart selection from California and Australia. The twice-retail markups are refreshingly reasonable, whether for the lusciously drinkable Gea sangiovese ($43) or a powerful Robert Biale zinfandel ($63) that is worth the splurge. But there are also numerous excellent wines by the glass, from the full-bodied red Palazzo della Torre, to the exotic off-dry nectar of Caymus Conundrum to a crisper Cloudy Bay sauvignon blanc.

Like the wine program, there is a professional tone to the service here that is rare in the neighborhood. All Paradiso really lacks in its bid to become South Philadelphia's first three-Liberty Bell restaurant is a notch more consistency and polish from its kitchen.

Considering that this is the first crack at fine dining for Rinaldi, a Restaurant School graduate who owned a casual cafe in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts for nine years, her debut efforts are impressive.

Her potato gnocchi are as light as any I've tasted, like diamond-shaped clouds that melt on the tongue. Beautifully sauteed jumbo shrimp come alongside an appetizer of snappy white beans glazed with olive oil and a sparkle of lemon zest.

Braised meats are a Paradiso forte. The rabbit cacciatore was incredibly tender, cloaked with a pomade of slow-stewed vegetables over a creamy mound of mascarpone polenta. The bruschetta smeared with a truffled pate of rabbit liver is a brilliant flourish. I also loved the wine-infused osso bucco and the massively tender shortrib that arrived still attached to a long bone that arched across the plate.

Pastas were also well done, from the al dente rounds of orecchiette cradling bits of sweet sausage and bitter broccoli rabe, to the sheer ribbons of pappardelle that wrapped around a mushroom ragout that was satisfyingly earthy.

For all her early success, Rinaldi still has work to do. I like the idea of reinventing mamma's tripe for the masses, but the bowl of tomato-stewed frilly white ribbons was too plain and too funky - even for me. The octopus salad was chewy and redolent of uncharacteristic fishiness. A straightforward rib-eye steak was badly overcooked. A simple plate of good buffalo mozzarella and prosciutto was spoiled by poor trimming - something hard and chewy still clung to the otherwise silky meat. Details, details.

While much of the menu is rooted in Rinaldi's Italian American upbringing, she goes beyond simply reenvisioning home cooking. Her crespelle are delicate crepes filled with a surprising stuffing that evokes the flavor of fall - spiced butternut squash with ricotta cheese that pushes, but does not break, that delicate boundary of sweet and savory. The roasted beet salad captures the root vegetable's sweet essence, playing the crimson dice off salty nuggets of gorgonzola cheese and the snap of roasted pine nuts.

I'm usually wary of the typical overstuffed, overcooked South Philly pork chop, but Paradiso carried it off, with a surprisingly still-tender pocket of meat wrapped around a core of fontina cheese and mortadella.

Rinaldi also showed a delicate touch with fish. A meaty fillet of black cod came perched over a mound of brothy Swiss chard and white beans. A plump whole branzino was sublimely moist, its soft, white flesh infused with the herbs that generously stuffed the fish. I only wish the waiter hadn't missed a few bones in his tableside deboning, and that the rest of the entrees hadn't lagged for several minutes once he'd finished.

I had no quibbles at all with the lovely grilled tuna, which stoked a Sicilian mood with salty olives, sour bursts of blood orange, and a nest of shaved fennel that snapped like al dente anise-scented noodles.

Paradiso has no pastry chef yet, and it shows in desserts that are adequate, but hardly as stellar as the rest of the meal. The trifle of chocolate zabaglione is a satisfying blend of pudding and fruit. The pear ginger tart could be crisper, but was great with molasses gelato from Capogiro. A sweet rice pudding topped with grappa-soaked cherries, though, might just be your best bet.

Then again, why not just go straight to the collection of pricey grappas that perch so exquisitely behind the bar? Or consider a nice glass of dessert wine, such as the portlike recioto from Corteforte, and savor it slowly with a plate of artisan cheese from Paradiso's cart - an oozy wedge of ash-lined Humboldt Fog, a shaving of butterscotch Gouda, a pungent morsel of Taleggio, or the creamy piquance of a gorgonzola dolce.

If that's not my idea of pure paradiso, it's getting pretty close.

Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/craiglaban.