Relying on another person's opinion to make your own decisions can be tricky. I sometimes feel that I live or die by consensus opinions on Yelp or TripAdvisor, but for some reason feel wary of the recommendations of professional restaurant critics (yeah, I know it doesn't make sense!). However, Craig LaBan's recent roundup of solid-but-not-quite-four-bell-restaurants seemed knowledgeable and fair, and based off of his review, our food-loving father requested a trip to Melograno, rated well under the "Distinctive Italian" category.
Located just a few blocks away on the narrow strip of Sansom between 20th and 21st, the space is pretty expansive- and MUCH larger than their previous home at 22nd and Spruce. They also now take reservations (every night but Saturday?), which are a must in our opinion.
Our waitress was a little bizarre, giving us a few blank stares while reciting the daily specials, and generally looking lost. I don't think she was a newbie either, which made it even more strange. The meal began with a basic bread service- some fluffy foccacia slices and a plain olive oil dip. Nothing special, but adequate.
We ordered a couple appetizers to share as a table, and my immediate request was an order of the Fritturina, or fried smelts ($9). I know sardines are a little weird to some, but I love their salty, oily flavor. Plus, fried whole, these were kind of like fancy fish sticks! The light fried coating and the delicious lemon-herb mayo dip did mask some of the fishy flavor, but don't order these if you're not a sardine/smelt fan. To us though, they were addicting- and the substantial portion was well worth the price.
A few friends of mine had dinner at Melograno (which apparently means pomegranate in Italian) the night before we went, and they uniformly recommended we get the Sformato, or wild mushroom bread pudding ($10). For the price, it's a pretty tiny dish, but considering the richness of the earthy mushrooms, buttery bread pieces, and ricotta mousse, a bite or two was enough for each of us.
We also ordered a side dish as our third shared appetizer- the artichoke ($5). I honestly don't know quite how this was prepared, but our waitress described it as "Roman style." Google tells me this would require lots of fresh herbs and a long, slow braise, but the crispiness of the 'choke makes me think it may have been fried. Regardless, it was great-- we all wanted an order for ourselves!
Melograno is particularly well known for its homemade pasta, and most of us (at least the carb-loving females) took advantage of this. J ordered the Pappardelle Tartufate, a rich mixture of ground walnuts, mushrooms, truffle oil, and pecorino ($18). The homemade pappardelle was the star of this dish- long, thick strips of hand cut pasta with just the right amount of chew. The portion was also more than adequate- even sharing around the table, we couldn't quite finish the plate. For a vegetarian dish, it was also quite satisfying and filling with the addition of nuts to the sauce- but the truffle oil definitely stole the show in terms of flavor.
Our non-pasta dish was the Zuppetta di Mare, or spicy fish stew ($20). A huge head-on prawn, mussels, scallops and white fish were all immersed in a thin tomato-based sauce that held surprising heat. The seafood was all well-cooked, and the fregola, or couscous-like beads of pasta, helped soak up some of the broth at the bottom. The flavor of the soup was not quite as I expected, making this my least favorite of the night- a single flavor (saffron?) dominated, making it a bit one-note.
Our mom chose the Ravioli alla Zucca, an almost dessert-like decadent dish of lovely pasta pockets filled with pumpkin and doused in a brown butter sauce ($18). The flavors on this were intense- creamy mascarpone in the filling provided additional richness, and several slivers of fried sage gave each bite a salty kick.
I chose the other pappardelle option- for homemade pasta, I think it's one of the best styles to really appreciate the freshness. I also think it's one of the best styles to soak up and distribute a rich sauce, so I appreciated the thoughtfully matched walnut-truffle (previously discussed) and Wild Boar Ragu options ($18). However, the ragu fell slightly flat in comparison to the pasta itself. A really solid ragu will give the entire sauce a deeply meaty flavor, even if the actual portion of meat served is meager. Instead of meat, the immediate flavor profile here was cinnamon. Apparently this complements the potential gaminess of wild boar well, but I don't love cinnamon in baked goods, and I certainly don't add it to savory dishes. But, perhaps this just stems from my personal likes and dislikes, so I'd still suggest you try it for yourself!
We weren't particularly in need of dessert after that rich meal, but Laban's previous review spoke highly of Melograno's tiramisu. Even though none of us rank tiramisu at the top of our list of favorite desserts, we figured a classic, authentic Italian restaurant might do it right. Thankfully, we were happy with our decision, as the bowl of creamy mousse was like nothing we'd ever had before. The bottom of the bowl contained espresso soaked ladyfingers, so soft they melted in your mouth. The coffee flavor was subtle, but well matched with the dark cocoa sprinkled over the dish. The highlight was the mousse itself- a "zabaione," or pudding made with egg yolks, sugar, and Marsala. Cool, rich, with just the right amount of sweetness to balance the bitter espresso and dark chocolate, I could have eaten a bowl of this plain.
Our meal at Melograno was solid- and thus, we agree with Laban that this is one of the finest Italian restaurants in the city. However, a few flavor tweaks here and there had me disappointed with a couple of the dishes- perhaps authentic Roman cuisine just isn't always for me. With reasonable prices and solid portion sizes, don't save it for a special occasion- and don't forget that reservation!
2012 Sansom Street