Melograno's new digs offer twice as much space and the same great food.
"Waitress, there's a snail in my soup."
You could almost hear the remark pass through the bumper-boat lips of a Real Housewife of Rittenhouse Square. The noisy dining room was so beyond eavesdrop decibels, I could only observe the scene two tables over: the steaming broth, like an all-natural porcini facial; the bangles of gold and gems, clanging like old plumbing on her wrist; the beckoning twitch of her single sharply manicured finger. A no-soup-for-you fiasco seemed imminent, but instead the woman dug in with gusto.
Par for the course at Melograno, where there's a line out the door at 6 p.m. on a Restaurant Week Wednesday--they don't participate--and even the most unlikely diner is a foodie in disguise.
To say Gianluca Demontis and Rosemarie Tran's six-year-old BYOB has a following is an understatement. Since relocating in September, a move that more than doubled Melograno's seating, they've begun accepting reservations Tuesday through Thursday nights. It's a godsend for the impatient, but a policy that's done little to stem the walk-in onslaught. With a little advance planning and flexibility, I snagged a reservation easily, but when I arrived, non-reserved hopefuls were circling the hostess like stealthy lions would a gazelle.
Roman-born Demontis' robust, rustic cooking is the allure. Take the snail soup, in which each ingredient was distinctive-- from the deep, complex broth to the taut porcini to the tiny thimbles of ditalini pasta. The snails, so tender and intensely savory, were the best I've ever had. Among the big, brawny flavors, I also found artful balance. Fresh and grassy, chopped parsley and unfiltered extra- virgin olive oil energized the soup.
Slow-roasted tomato marmalade, red onions and capers soothed the richness of Melograno's chicken livers. Breaded in ciabatta crumbs and fried crisp as cutlets, they were so purely delicious they could convert the most organ-averse.
In Demontis' pistachio-studded translation of spaghetti Carbonara, the unapologetic addition of fresh and salted anchovies took the briny place of pancetta. The welcome sharpness scissored through the richness of the sauce's remaining ingredients: lots of black pepper, lots of Peccorino, white truffle oil and a raw egg yolk cooked by the warmth of the al dente pasta.
Ringed with tart balsamic and pomegranate reduction--"melograno" means pomegranate in Italian--whole quail hit a lighter note. Demontis pan-roasted the bird until its skin glistened and crackled like a Peking duck's and the meat below was rendered juicy and tender. If Italy had Thanksgiving, the quail's stuffing would star; the golden raisins, dried plums, figs and walnuts made a sweet, meaty match for the bird, as well as for the herbed polenta and grilled zucchini underneath.
Demontis' desserts are refreshingly different from the trattoria's usual suspects. Case in point: cloudlike ricotta budino spiced with cinnamon, brandy, lemon and orange zests. Teetering atop fresh strawberry hearts, the pseudo-souffle was brilliant, a citrusy, honey-hued dream with a restrained sweetness and the weight of lightly whipped marshmallows.
I wasn't as excited about the ciabatta bread pudding, its downright bitter lemon flavor like distilled peel and pith. The lumpy, undercooked blob was as half-baked as the service. Though nice enough, my server had the spaced-out expression of someone who'd just blazed, passed out, realized they were late for work and dashed out the door in a hazy frenzy. More bothersome, she kept calling the budino "bundino," which according to Urban Dictionary is "similar to a butt pirate but more like a dinosaur." Appetizing.