Unlike its neighbors, Bocca is more culinary than club.
There’s an Italian phrase that goes “ in bocca al lupo .” It’s one of a few lessons I retained from four high school years studying the language, mostly because the expression was stamped onto every test and exam in Mr. D.’s blocky, gap-toothed penmanship. It literally translates as “in the wolf’s mouth,” but colloquially it just means good luck.
The Italian axiom informs the name of a new Old City spot, Bocca. Like a fashion-conscious Cyclops, it dwells in a dark, brooding cave furnished with bull-market ceilings, wrought mirrors, distressed wood and bomber-jacket banquettes. This used to be Amici Noi (owners Mario and Natale Presta reconceptualized over the winter), and by all accounts it’s a good-looking space—grounds Pat Burrell might have stomped in the 2001 off-season.
But like many of its neighbors fueling the sexploits of the spray-tanned with Cosmos and Amstel Light, Bocca appears a bit too clubby for serious restaurant consideration. Its name means “mouth” in Italian, but from the looks of it, food is not what it’s interested in eating.
If the glamour shots of half-exposed chicks hanging on half-exposed bricks say one thing, 24-year-old chef Chris D’Ambro’s menu says another. Actually, it says all the right things (grass-fed beef, Berkshire pork belly, house pickles) and then some (black olive paint, Parmesan espuma). That—and the Chesco native’s resume, which includes an apprenticeship with Marc Vetri and a stint cooking in Florence—got me in Bocca’s door.
But I was wary. With more than 30 different small plates compounding the culinary hijinks, the menu is riddled and rigged with opportunity for failure. In the wrong chef’s hands, I’d be having disaster for dinner.
But the gastronomic apocalypse never came. What did come included some of the wittiest, most winsome things I’ve eaten this year. You’ll forgive me for being surprised by the exquisiteness of the citrus-cured foie gras torchon, so rich and silky smeared on croissant (a crunchy bread would have been better) with blueberry mostarda and zingy pink peppercorn-infused tapioca pearls; for being shocked at discovering the bar snack of my dreams (D’Ambro’s chickpea frites) in an ultralounge that sells Jaeger by the $160 bottle.
Made from a batter of chickpea flour, milk, orange zest and cardamom, the frites are cooled, cut and cooked to order into crisp (if slightly greasy) gold bars of deep-fried hummus. No pita necessary. I guess Bocca was excited about them too; in their enthusiasm, the menu scribe had forgotten the “k” in “chick”—unless the intention was to comment on the frites’ stylishness.
D’Ambro’s springtime repertoire was lighthearted and fresh, with deft touches of gravitas. Mellow avocado was just enough to relax the rambunctious citrus tones in the lively Jersey scallop, ruby-red grapefruit and cucumber ceviche showered with cilantro, basil and mint. Funky fermented black garlic and tart hibiscus gastrique added a complex undertow to mischievous carrot confit.
Arrayed across a violet-and-green galaxy of pureed English pea comets, agua Jamaica bubbles and hand-shelled fava beans, the soft, sweet, square-cut carrots were beautiful both to behold and to taste. A dusting of olive oil powder and microgreens came across playful—not pretentious. One baby beet top lay midway through an upright carrot cube’s donut center like a toddler at Tunnels of Fun.
D’Ambro’s seasonal sensitivity means my piquant May ramps crisscrossing the dreamy brandade might be your unruly June garlic scapes. Pea shoots, perhaps, instead of the unusual sauteed fiddlehead ferns atop the cast iron skillet-seared, lime-splashed lobe of wild Atlantic halibut. Alpine strawberries or young plums might be understudies for rhubarb, which appeared pureed into ketchup for the chick (chic?) pea frites, confited for black freckled Tahitian vanilla panna cotta.
One of three desserts, the trio of scallop-shaped panna cottas showcased D’Ambro’s restrained sugaring and love of the element of surprise; candied celery and gelled balsamic vinegar beads joined the confited rhubarb as toppings from the foodie sundae bar. If you didn’t know otherwise, you’d think you were looking at a Diver dressed with Beluga caviar.
The slight of hand seems to be D’Ambro’s signature—but his best trick, no doubt, is making this Old City lounge one of the best new restaurants in town. No luck needed. ■
236 Market St. 215.625.6610
Cuisine: Contemporary seasonal American.
Hours: Tues.-Sat., 5pm-midnight. Bar till 2am.
Atmosphere: Sleek clubby cavern.
Bocca's chef Chris D'Ambro takes us into his kitchen to prepare a light cod with marinated cherry tomatoes on the side. And he does it for under $15.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014