When Joseph Scarpone opened Sovalo back in 2005, it quickly became a must-visit destination in the then-fledgling Northern Liberties restaurant scene, and a standout Italian-influenced spot in a city with no shortage of them. With Ulivo, Scarpone’s new project in the old Trattoria Alla Costiera space in Bella Vista, he doesn’t so much return to his Sovalo roots as he does to ours, as a collective dining city. This is a kitchen that finds its inspiration in Italian and Mediterranean classics, and then proceeds to tweak or chef-ify them into something more modern, more comforting, without losing what’s always made them so beloved in the first place.
When this works, the food is exactly what you’d want to tuck into at a neighborhood restaurant. Fried polenta was perfect for a blustery winter’s night, each fluffy-centered cornmeal and semolina baton encased in a perfectly golden crust and complicated by both fontina and parmigiano reggiano, as well as an anchovy-spiked salsa rosa. It looked like a perfect plate of sliced French toast, and was every bit as comforting. Grilled octopus showed off Scarpone’s acumen with a difficult ingredient: meaty cuts, braised and then marinated prior to hitting the open flame, then tossed with slivers of sopressata, had the texture of tender steak and were beautifully accompanied by olive oil-braised Yukon gold potatoes singing with the brightness of a whole citrus vinaigrette.
There were occasional misses, too, but these were almost always the result of too much caution. Scarpone is often at his best on the lustier end of the spectrum, and a few dishes at Ulivo left me satisfied, but not excited.
Generous slices of speck weren’t quite enough to make a salad of pickled fennel with almonds and Meyer lemon more than a pleasantly refreshing diversion. Tonnarelli with butternut squash and hedgehog mushrooms was great for the first three or four bites, but grew too monotonally sweet afterward. A dusting of ricotta salata helped, but some sort of spice, something to spark it up a bit, would have made a world of difference. Still, the pasta—made in-house—was fabulous.
Tagliatelle was also masterfully crafted, each silky ribbon just rough-sided enough to hold onto a perfect amount of accompanying rosemary-scented pork-leg ragu, all succulent and dense-flavored. This sort of hearty, ingredient-driven simplicity is what Ulivo does best. A grilled Berkshire pork chop, its char-edged bone arcing out from the wedge of flesh like some kind of paleolithic tool-handle, embodied everything that’s so good about meat from well-loved animals. (Scarpone focuses on sustainably raised meat and fish.) This particular chop was to the flavorless “other white meat” most of us grew up on as Andy Reid is to Vince Lombardi. It needed no more than a 10-minute brine, quick trip over the grill, some wilted and deliriously savory escarole, and glazed cippolini to make its statement, and brilliantly so.
Even chicken breast was impressive, the skin crisped up between the flat sides of two pans, the accompanying fregola echoing its nuttier notes. I just wish the salmon had been shown more blood-orange-vinaigrette love. That beautifully balanced citrus note exploded against the lentils, hearty with nobs of pancetta, but the salmon could have used some of that acid to wake it up. Against the palette of those lentils, it was nearly relegated to a bit player. Frustrating, because it was cooked perfectly and very well-conceived.
Desserts showed a similar sense of thoughtfulness. Carnaroli rice pudding took full advantage of that risotto staple, and each forkful was a perfectly creamy, toothsome vehicle not just for the bloomed cherries, raisins and toasted almonds, but for the excellent rice itself. Rosemary cake with a lemon-zipped ricotta marching across the plate justified bringing a bottle of good Moscato d’Asti to pop alongside.
With just a few minor tweaks, Scarpone will likely have exactly what he aims for once again: a friendly, successful BYOB that neighbors can call their own, and that’s worth the drive (and the fight for parking) to visit.
It’s good to have him back in the city.
521 Catharine St. 215.351.1550. ulivophila.com
Cuisine: Seasonal Italian-Mediterranean BYOB.
Hours: Mon.-Thurs., 5-10pm; Fri.-Sat., 5-11pm.
Price range: $5-$23.
Atmosphere: Comfortable and understated.
Food: Very good flavors; few need a bit more pop.
Service: Well-informed and pleasant.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014