February 23, 2014

Little Nonna's

One of the hardest-to-get reservations these days is at Little Nonna's, Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran's latest 13th Street food establishment.  With only 40 seats, the cozy Italian-American spot has some tough competition with long-time South Philadelphia Italian classics like Villa di Roma and Ralph's.  However, the duo do a little updating to the classics, bringing us 21st century Italian food.  Since our visit was over a month ago, we'll review some of our favorite dishes in mostly (heavily filtered iPhone) pics.

on the specials menu: soup of the day
insanely large veal porterhouse-- that leafy thing on the left is actually an enormous oyster mushroom ($26)
another dish off the specials: grilled lancaster vegetables, including leeks, onions, carrots, radishes, and beets ($6)
One of the small complaints we had was that bread isn't brought to the table gratis.  Usually we'd be fine with that, but at an Italian restaurant, bread is king.  Plus, you need a little extra something to mop up every delicious sauce!  We recommend splurging an extra $5 for an order of the garlic bread for the table- with a roasted bulb of garlic to squeeze and spread onto the grilled Sarcone's loaf.

garlic bread goodness
The pasta dishes at Little Nonna's are not to be missed.  These dishes will fill you up and save you a few dollars compared to the higher priced entrees.  We didn't get the spaghetti and meatballs but the table next to us had a couple of orders and man did it look epic.

linguine vongole: fresh pasta in a spicy white wine sauce with plenty of cherrystone clams ($16)
pan seared potato gnocchi ($14): soft but crisp, with soppressata, olives, tomato and arugula
The desserts are also quite nice, if not a little bit on the pricy side compared to the rest of Little Nonna's menu.  The apple crostata was picture perfect, and kicked up a few notches with cinnamon spiced caramel, surprisingly bright vanilla-thyme ice cream, and a little shaved pecorino for kicks ($9).

apple crostata
We also recommend the house made "water ice" (and gelato-- see above), with seasonal flavors that will blow your mind.  I really appreciated the addition of fresh herbs in many of the options.

concord grape-prosecco.. and sage? ($6)
We loved our dinner at Little Nonna's, and think its a very solid addition to the Turney-Safran conglomeration.  Keep it up, ladies!

Little Nonna's
1234 Locust Street

February 13, 2014

Pizzeria Vetri

Oh, hey there. It's been awhile. *Insert lame excuse about how cold temps, ice, and snow impede blogging motivation*  Regardless, we're still making a few eating-related excursions from time to time.  One such adventure involved dining at Pizzeria Vetri, a casual pizza-focused restaurant opened last fall by well-known Philly chef Marc Vetri.  But you probably already deduced those details based on the name.

I stopped in with a friend on a Thursday evening, and thankfully we had several seating options available. Word on the street is that it can get busy with a wait of an hour or more. We smartly bypassed the communal table with several children (quite family friendly!) and grabbed seats at the "pizza bar"- essentially a counter overlooking the action.  The space is pretty large, open, and bright- not the intimate atmosphere that Vetri typically gravitates towards.

I came in with some preconcieved notions about the menu. Namely, that I NEEDED the rotolo ($3.50 each).  What's a rotolo? Think savory sticky bun, with pizza dough rolled around mortadella (thinly-sliced, cured sausage) and creamy ricotta cheese, and topped with a crunchy pistachio pesto. The layers of dough mean you get some of the crispy edges along with plenty of steamy, fluffy, doughy goodness on the inside. Add salty meat and cheese and you've got an incredible little treat to start your meal.

I really needed to balance a ton of salt and carbs with something remotely healthy, so we split the arugula salad ($8). A bed of fresh, peppery greens supports chunks of smoky roasted potatoes, an extra herby and chunky pesto dressing, and a good dose of small red olives. Simple, with the right balance of winter-y heartiness and refreshing crispness.

Now onto the real deal- the pizza. There are all kinds of options, including a really odd concept of tuna, onion, and pepperoncini. Our view of the prep station reflected the huge popularity of this pizza, but we weren't so brave. The salsiccia ($16) was more up our alley, with fennel sausage, roasted fennel, mozzarella, and a chunky tomato sauce.  The fennel game is upped even further with sprigs of fennel fronds scattered post-baking. Six hearty slices were far more than enough to share.  I'm a big fan of a fat crust, so this pizza didn't disappoint, but if you prefer something thinner, the central part of the crust was fairly thin. A fair compromise- enjoy the toppings without a mouthful of dough, but then finish your slice with some fluffy goodness.

I definitely loved all the components of this pizza- crust, sauce, sausage, all of the fennel action.  But I can't definitively say it's better than my other favorites- Nomad and Pitruco. But right on par? Yes, sir.

I was wayy too full for anything too heavy for dessert (like the fried pizza dough or Nutella marshmallow pizza...), but I love me some Italian baked goods, so we split the cookie jar ($5). More like a cookie bag (why can't they actually serve this in a mini jar?), enclosing two pieces each of four different cookies. My all-time favorite are almond cookies (the powdered sugar coated cookies)- with a dense sweetness thanks to plenty of almond paste. The soft pistachio "gnocchi" put a little Vetri spin on the bag- otherwise, you could get these at your favorite South Philly bakery. Which I'm not complaining about- that's a bit of a hike for me! A perfect sweet treat to complete the meal.

Overall, the meal was a real success. Was it anything earth shatttering? No. Was everything super solid from start to finish, mmmm-inducing, and worth returning for? You bet.  Great service and a fun view of the pizza generation added memorable touches to the experience.

Pizzeria Vetri
1939 Callowhill

January 13, 2014

The Fat Ham

To follow up on our commentary on current Top Chef contestant Nick Elmi's Laurel, I'll recap our recent meal at Top Chef winner Kevin Sbraga's new restaurant, The Fat Ham.  The space is small and cozy, and we got lucky with a quieter Saturday night (our parents ate here separately on a Friday and complained about lots of noise). Compared with his more formal Sbraga, the menu is more loosely defined (and less expensive!), so as a group of four we got to taste lots of dishes.  The concept is much more casual as well, focused on Southern comfort food without any fancy twists.

The fried green tomatoes are a Southern staple, so they were a must ($6).  Two large discs of firm, unripe tomato were nicely battered and fried to a crisp- plenty of crunch here to offset all the tomato juice. Horseradish-tinted sour cream makes for a potent version of an aioli.  My only complaint is that there were only two pieces.. we needed another order.

We also split the Fat Ham charcuterie plate ($14).. and by plate I mean slice of tree trunk.  Instead of serving plates, almost all of the dishes were served on carved wood, which we were told are stuck in the dishwasher along with everything else.  Kinda cool but kinda weird.  Highlights of the charcuterie included a chicken liver mousse and silky soft bacon- so unlike the usual crispy stuff we're used to.  This was a great plate to split between four people, and well worth the price.

 There aren't a lot of larger plates to choose from, so I went with the ham & eggs ($10) as a sort of main dish.  A thick piece of ham sourced from Virginia is seared and topped with a thin red eye gravy (involves coffee!) and a perfect over-easy egg.  Spicy green tomato relish gives the whole thing a good kick, with toasted pieces of bread to sop up the inevitable juice.  Our waitress heard us dissecting the dish (just for a good food discussion) and was convinced we hated it. Regardless of the fact that I cleaned my plate and repeatedly told her that I enjoyed it, she removed it from our bill.  Ham and eggs is hard to take to the next level, but with the thoughtful addition of sauces and careful execution, Sbraga did a great job here.

The oyster sliders ($5/each). Oh man, I don't even know if I can do these babies justice. A fat oyster perfectly fried (maybe twice? that breading is CRISP) atop a super fluffy yeasty housemade mini-bun (complete with shiny egg washed top and crunchy seeds), finely shredded and slightly sweet coleslaw, and a runny gribiche... pure food genius.  It was that perfect combination of flavor and texture profiles.

A bowl of Carolina Gold rice ($7) was another highlight.  The dish is completed with slow cooked oxtail and it defines the word savory.  A dab of housemade hot sauce brought this over the top, and Sbraga does it again with that textural combination of al dente rice and falling-apart-in-your-mouth meat.  So simple and yet so delicious.

The pulled pork ($11) was less exciting, served atop a piece of white bread that acted as a sponge, becoming soggy and lost- I'd prefer bread on the side to make a fresher sandwich. Pickled cukes, carrots, and purple onions adds crunch and color, but the pulled pork itself isn't anything mind-blowing.

Instead of the pulled pork, go for the hot chicken ($13).  The bread, pickles, and a thin ranch dressing here are quiet afterthoughts to the super crunchy, steamy meat that is eye-openingly spicy.  It's so hot in both contexts of the word that just hovering your face over the chicken as it arrives gives you a good sinus clearing.  Recent conversation about this being the "best fried chicken" in Philly has some serious truth.

Our last savory dish was the mac n' cheese ($8), made with pasta shells and a (meager) BBQ chip topping. My dad recently introduced me to the best mac n' cheese recipe EVER, but this was a decent rendition.  If you like soupier mac, this one's for you.  If you make a good one at home, stick with something else (like another oyster slider).

The meal was pretty speedy (especially with K. Sbrags himself expediting at the counter right next to our table), so we decided to finish out the meal with a chocolate chip cookie skillet hot out of the oven ($6).  A scoop of vanilla ice cream countered the high temps and made for a super classic, if not particularly exciting, end to the evening.

Overall, the price was right, we loved the service and the atmosphere, and almost all of the dishes were worth ordering again.  Highlights were definitely the rice, the oyster sliders, and the hot chicken. It's a striking contrast to Sbraga, so don't go expecting something similar. Go with an empty stomach and the need for some good down-home Southern classics (with a bit of Sbraga influence).

The Fat Ham
3131 Walnut Street

January 9, 2014


We've been following Top Chef this season- not only is it fun to see snippets of New Orleans, but two Philadelphia chefs were competing for the title.  Unfortunately, Jason Cichonski of Ela was eliminated after a few challenges, but Nick Elmi (former Executive Chef of Rittenhouse Tavern) is holding on strong-- and is now one of the top 5 final contestants!  The longer a contestant stays on, the more you learn about his/her cooking styles, and it was easy to see from the beginning that Chef Elmi is a competent competitor (his boyish good looks and loyalty to his family also make him mega-adorable).

Top Chef mugshot: cute, right?
Of course, seeing his dishes each weeks has me salivating (for more than one reason) so I talked a friend into checking out his new Passyunk restaurant, Laurel.  Even though he has become a moderate Philly food celebrity, it's still easy to get a reservation, even though his tiny space holds only 24 seats.  When you walk in, you kind of feel right at home, at least if you're familiar with the Philly intimate BYO scene.  The small space is upscale, not too cramped, and the small groups remained relatively quiet throughout the evening (sometimes a worry at a larger BYO).

Didn't take this one either
The team describes it as French/American, though I'd say it tends to lean towards the "New American" genre, combining familiar foods and cooking styles with the not-as-common ingredients and skills to elevate each dish to a higher level.  The menu is split into four sections, and the staff recommended an item from each.  I'll break it to you now- this won't be your cheap date option.  My meal (three courses, no dessert, no extra drinks, including tax/tip) was $75.  I have a hard time justifying spending so much on food, but I keep doing it, so I guess it is worth it in some unnameable way.

(I stupidly forgot my camera, so hold tight for some grainy iPhone pictures!)

If I've learned anything from Nick's time on Top Chef it is that he is a seafood master.  So I was all about the fish options, of which there are many.  First course: albacore tuna, horseradish, shallow, asian pear, and yogurt ($12).  These menu descriptions can be misleading-- little information about the preparation of the dish, and while so many ingredients are listed, many are also left out.

This tuna dish was the highlight of my meal though, served raw and expertly sliced under a shower of frozen horseradish cream.  Somehow the extreme cold of the horseradish helped mellow its spice, and not overwhelm the perfect (and generous portion of) tuna.

I also had a taste of my friend's scallop dish, "Torn New Jersey scallop, mutsu apple, sea lettuce, celery", for $13.  Raw scallop has a fairly fishy taste, which I was unaware of- not as appetizing as the smooth, savory tuna.  Also, still no idea what a mutsu apple is.  The celery was quite distinct, particularly in the broth under the scallop.

Our meal was well paced, with time between courses for plenty of conversation and people watching.  It was obvious many of the other restaurant patrons were Top Chef fangirls (and boys), asking to meet Chef Elmi and praising his success so far.  Our second course provided fewer options (three versus four for the other savory courses)- of note, the small menu leaves little room for vegetarians.  I chose the fresh ricotta gnocchi, since Chef Elmi actually won a very competitive Top Chef challenge with his handmade gnocchi.  And now I can see why-- a rich tomato based sauce, plenty of pancetta and garlic, and all of that pillowy cheese (coated in more cheese).. it was near impossible to finish even this small bowl ($13).

The "Grilled Maitake, Roasted Hazelnut, Preserved Lemon, Lemongrass Chicken Broth" is essentially a very brothy mushroom soup.  With all those contrasting flavors, I thought for sure this would be hard to love, but Nick has a way with knowing exactly what ingredients he can mix and match.  The one thing we didn't like was that the soup was served lukewarm.  On a cold evening, a hot soup would have been so comforting.

And that brings us to the third course, which is meatier and technically serves as the entree.  Once again (seriously, I swear this is some sort of worldwide restaurant downfall), the entrees were less cohesive and delicious than the first two courses.  It's almost as if the focus on the main protein causes chefs to under think the sauce/side/preparation.  My seared ocean trout with turnip, burgundy snail and black quinoa was solid, but I would have rather had another plate of the first course tuna ($27).

I swear that's fish, crispy skin up
The other entree on the table offered me a taste of something completely new.  Berkshire pork was perfectly cooked, with a crisp exterior but with plenty of pink  inside.  I absolutely loved it, but my friend commented that it tasted like/appeared to be pork belly, which isn't his personal favorite.  Of course, the staff is available to answer these types of questions, but more information on the menu would help us make our our own best decisions.

That bed of mashed potatoes?  Nope... crushed chestnuts.  I ate a bite and I think my face scared the waitress, who came to explain this part of the dish.  Incredibly starchy, the mashed chestnuts kind of coated your mouth, and the flavor wasn't one I wanted to keep reliving.  The kale-huckleberry sauce was beautiful, but I can't comment on its flavor.  This dish definitely highlights Chef Elmi's very creative touch (which I think was also exhibited well at Rittenhouse Tavern, from photos and reviews we saw), and perhaps our palates aren't QUITE advanced enough for all of his creations.

A small handful of desserts are also available, but I felt I had eaten (and spent) plenty.  There was no pressure to vacate our seats, and I declined to bother Nick with another fangirl request (this may have been because I was a little nervous to meet him!).  Laurel seems to be keeping a low profile on the buzz scale, but I can see with a few tweaks, it could become a top Philly spot, particularly for special occasions.  Hoping to see Chef Elmi bring home another Top Chef title to our city!

1617 E. Passyunk Avenue

December 17, 2013


A recent rainy Friday night found me at Serpico, a new-ish collaboration between the infamous Stephen Starr and ex-Momofuku chef Peter Serpico.  The squat stone structure seems a little out of place on noisy and eclectic South Street, but it gives way to a large welcoming dining room complete with open kitchen.  We were sent to the "bar" (a makeshift counter) for a few minutes before our seats opened up at the counter overlooking the action. I really enjoyed watching the chefs (including Mr. Serpico himself) and the expediter put on their nightly show.

The menu is heavy on the small plates, so my friend and I decided to split four of them.  We're both suckers for poultry liver, so the duck liver mousse was a no-brainer ($10).  While the portion was on the small side, the extremely smooth texture of the mousse, the sweet-tart dollops of pomegranate puree and a section of crusty grilled bread made for a satisfying start to the meal.  Serpico also provides an impossibly thin piece of crispy sesame "cracker" to get the tastebuds warmed up.

 The deep fried duck leg ($13) seems to be here to stay, surviving several changes of menus.  We have no idea how Peter pulls this off, but apparently it involves meat glue, and we're not even mad.  The incredible smoky sweet meat complete with crispy skin is perfectly accented by a little hoisin sauce, lightly pickled cukes, and a compressed Martin's potato roll.  A side of pickled veggies and sriracha dipping sauce basically provided all of my favorite things.  Other apps we enjoyed included a tangy sunchoke salad and a pasta dish highlighted by bits of crispy chicken skin.

 Entree options seemed slightly less inspired, but the kimchi and tomato stew sounded like an interesting twist on a bouillabaisse ($24).  Stuffed full of mussels, clams, squid, and chunks of flaky monkfish, the funky tomato-based broth certainly had an extra dimension of flavor than your traditional seafood stew.  However, the entree portions are quite generous, and after awhile the flavors dulled and everything became a little bit one-note.

The duck  breast ($21) was incredibly well-cooked, again maintaining that incredibly flavorful skin that covered the velvety piece of meat.  However, that was essentially the extent of what I liked- the sweet potato was plain and the chopped cabbage overly vinegared. My friend popped that green thing in his mouth, chewed, swallowed, and immediately admitted, "I maybe wasn't supposed to eat that."

 We lingered at the counter as things got quieter and the chefs wrapped up their stations, choosing to enjoy a cup of green tea and dessert.  The green tea was served in a "traditional" manner, using a finely ground green tea powder, hot water, and a little brush-whisk.  For a little sweetness, we shared the goat cheese sorbet, a refreshing combination of a buttermilk-like sorbet, crumbled shortbread, tiny balls of Asian pear, and sprigs of fresh mint.

We sat at the counter for almost three hours, slowly enjoying the food, company, and watching the chefs do their thing.  Although we ended up paying a fair amount, I really felt like the whole experience was worth it.  Next time, we'll go even heavier on the small plates!

604 South Street