February 6, 2012


Sometimes we tend to focus a bit too much on the hot new restaurants- hard not to, when there seems to be a never ending supply.  This constant influx of great new spots- along with the fact that Philadelphians are ruthless when it comes to food- prevent any subpar restaurant from sticking around for long.  So, if you've been around for 23 years, you have to be doing something right... right?  Such is the case for Varalli (formerly Sotto Varalli), a spacious spot in the midst of the Avenue of the Arts, on the corner of Broad and Locust.

A somewhat dated picture Source
Varalli serves Italian food with a heavy emphasis on seafood and a bit of a Mediterranean influence.  It seems to cater to a lot of older clientele, although recent changes (including converting the upstairs to a restyled pub) may be indicative of an attempt to update things for a new generation.  Either way, I was lucky enough to be co-recipient of a generous Varalli gift card from one of my future in-laws (thanks!).  It was actually a great choice, since I'd never been and the menu is extensive enough to please anyone.

We made an early reservation, as we were catching a show later that night- something Varalli understands and even caters to.  The hostess made a special effort to seat us at a prime table, even though we had to wait a few extra minutes for it.  It happened to be Restaurant Week, but the $35 dinner offered a somewhat unnecessary four courses, so we opted to order a la carte.  

Part of the sea inspired decor- a giant squid Source
First up: a shared appetizer, which of course was fried calamari (my man's favorite).  The huge platter was plenty to share, and easily made the price worth it ($12.50).  Large rings of lightly breaded squid (sadly, no tentacles) and artichoke hearts were served atop some mixed greens, and topped with dollops of an herb aioli and chopped marinated tomatoes.  I was a big fan of these little additions- the greens with a little aioli was salad-like enough to give the deep-fried food a lighter feel.  However, the fun little chunks of fried artichokes were my absolute favorite.

Our waiter, a no-nonsense younger guy who seemed to be taking care of the entire room, apologized when he brought the bread service after our first course was served.  I didn't fault him at all, though- the appetizer came out surprisingly quick.  The bread basket contained several strips of fluffy parmesan, butter, and herb coated foccacia, which were flavorful enough to skip useing either of the two accompanying sauces.  Regardless, the bright basil pesto and an herb-infused olive oil were addictive enough to continue dipping into.

The menu spans a number of Italian classics, from which my dining mate chose the Veal Piccata ($22). Two very thinly pounded veal cutlets are lightly breaded before being pan fried and drowned in a buttery, lemon piccata sauce.  I'm not the biggest fan of capers (surprising, since I love anything pickled), but I appreciated their tang in the small bite I tried.  I also stole the majority of that pile of greens- spinach sauteed to a melt-in-your-mouth consistency, with just the right amount of garlic and lemon to complement the earthy flavors of the greens.

I went with one of the many seafood options, the Grilled Scallops ($25), although I had a tough time deciding against all of the decadent pasta options.  I was completely happy with my choice as soon as it was delivered- these scallops were enormous.  Finishing four of them was almost a feat- but absolutely necessary, as the smooth, salty, buttery meat is something I don't enjoy often enough.  Each perfectly grilled piece was topped with a little hat of the same basil pesto we sampled with our bread- just enough to add flavor without overwhelming the centerpiece.  The addition of some grilled vegetables was welcome, with smoky asparagus, charred red bell pepper, and thick-cut yellow squash rounding out the plate.

Even though our stomachs were reaching capacity, I insisted on ordering dessert (and a decaf cappuccino might have slipped in there as well).  The "lemon-scented" Panna Cotta seemed appealing to both of us, but ended up the only disappointment of the night ($8.95).  Clearly made well in advance, the dessert is served in a chilled glass indicative of a long sit in the refrigerator.  While it was a beautiful display, it also seemed a bit of a cheat- instead of using a mold, the gelatinous dessert was made directly in the glass.  The creamy panna cotta was layered with what can only be described as Jell-O.  Cherry?  Strawberry?  Either way, it reminded me of staying home sick as a child- not the best memory to be induced.  We didn't make it halfway through, even with our attempts to pick through the red layers to get to the white.

Overall, the dinner was a wonderful experience, made even better by the fact that we didn't have to worry about the bill.  The food was simple, but (mostly) well-prepared and flavorful.  While the prices seemed a little bit much, the service and eats are high-quality.  Plus, I can understand that a lot of the price comes down to the location of the restaurant- and I'm sure Varalli pays a pretty penny in rent.  I'd recommend the spot for a pre-theater crowd that wants good, classic Italian food- there are always plenty of people who aren't interested in the latest food trends!

231 S. Broad Street

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