Zavino

A new pizza joint brings delicious pies to Midtown Village.

By Adam Erace
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 15 | Posted Mar. 30, 2010

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On the pink: Zavino's Rosa layers crushed tomatoes with grated cheese and fresh oregano

Photo by Michael persico

Peering through sweepy surfer bangs, the server started the sermon: “We got a whole pig in last week,” he explained while filling our glasses with sparkling water that had been filtered, carbonated and bottled on-site in reclaimed milk jugs. “We really like to use the entire animal at Zavino. We don’t want anything to go to waste.”

“Sermon” might be the wrong word, as it connotes the barnyard righteousness that undermines the fresh-local conversation. That snobbery isn’t being served at Zavino, a fine-tuned trattoria masquerading as a pizza joint in Midtown Village. The waiter was off-the-cuff in a likeable way, and his description of the house-made headcheese ravioli—crafted from the aforementioned pig—was underpinned by a breathless excitement I couldn’t help but find infectious.

From the house-bottled water to the witty check sleeves that say “the damage,” the extra work that chef, owner and pizzaoila Steve Gonzales puts into this cramped corner space doesn’t go unnoticed. Whether it’s honoring animal sacrifice with a snout-to-tail philosophy; sourcing grass-fed Lancaster cream for the dreamy panna cotta; or pressing fresh citrus for from-scratch sodas—put me on an IV drip of the vibrant lime flavor—the details coalesce into something far better than a blind stab at the trickled-down-95 pizza trend besieging our city.

Remember when people bemoaned that you couldn’t get good pizza in Philly? That seems like so long ago, and so ludicrous now. While only Osteria on its best behavior can hang with Franny’s in Brooklyn and while nothing I’ve had here (or in NYC, for that matter) lives up to the singed, fiore di zucca-strewn pies in the sweltering attic of Rome’s Da Baffetto, you can still get great pies. Zavino’s are some of the best—and best priced, ranging from $8 to $13.

Gonzalez, a Southwest Philly native whose credentials include Brassiere Perrier and Vetri, New York’s Insieme and Hearth and Michelin-starred spots in Spain and Italy, doesn’t like to talk oven temperatures, flour blends or crust styles. His reply when I asked him on the phone what makes his pizza great: “We pay attention.”

Sister Mary Clarence was right. If you wanna be somebody, if you wanna go somewhere …

Paying attention means each pizza exits the oven at the moment it’s achieved that elusive, gratifying balance of char and chew. They travel mere feet—sometimes only inches—from the earthenware gas-fired oven to your table, one of 48 when you include the seats outside. They arrive alive, still bubbling and smoking.

My pies sported leopard-spotted bottoms and sooty edges that gave way to Claudio’s provolone dotted with ricotta-leavened veal meatballs (the Polpettini); earthy local mushrooms sunk into béchamel (the Kennett); and every so often, a delicate blistered air bubble. Gonzalez’s favorite pie—and mine—is also Zavino’s simplest: the Rosa, a layer of crushed tomatoes embellished with nothing more than grated Parmiggiano, fruity extra-virgin and fresh oregano. In Italian, “rosa” means “pink,” and it tickled me that way.

Chased with an undemanding Sangiovese from the neat wine list, the Rosa is exactly something you’d be served in Italy. In this tidy, tobacco-toned room, with the windows embracing the street and Negroni-sipping sophisticates lining the bar and spilling onto the Sansom Street sidewalk, you could just as easily be in Trestevere.

Bud Light on the beer list was a break in the reverie. Thankfully, someone came to their senses and took it off the menu.

A second downside: An overnight stay in the fridge renders Zavino’s slices too tough to enjoy hunched over the sink at 5 a.m. So by all means, eat up. You’ll have room; the antipasti are Euro-sized and include outsourced salumi and cheese, house-made terrines and vegetarian snacks like the “roots and greens,” a crunchy salad of shaved parsnips, carrots, turnips, radishes and celeriac tossed in warm, salty bagna cauda.

The options are always changing, directed by the seasonal wares of Gonzalez’s farmers and purveyors rather than by a “we wanna do this, let’s buy it” attitude. Meaning when a great pig comes to slaughter, there’ll be pork loin and pork belly and, maybe if you’re lucky, postage-stamp-sized ravioli plumped with headcheese and prune mostarda, served in a shallow bowl with crushed walnuts, Parmiggiano and pork jus scented, intriguingly, with … cardamom?

“Yep, cardamom.” The waiter grinned knowingly. “So good, man.”

So good indeed.

For more on Philly's food scene, visit blogalicious-adam.blogspot.com.

Zavino

112 S. 13th St. 215.732.2400.

Follow on Twitter @zavino

Cuisine: Pizza/Italian.

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 15 of 15
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1. Anonymous said... on Mar 31, 2010 at 06:02AM

“This place is awesome.... I've been to Zavino at least 8 times, and it gets better every time. How do they serve such great food at those prices?”

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2. Lis said... on Mar 31, 2010 at 10:45AM

“Great review because it's great fresh and delicious food. It makes my taste buds so happy.
I happen to love the closeness of all the seating. Friendly and fabulous. Steve knows just what he's doing!

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3. Anonymous said... on Mar 31, 2010 at 11:33AM

“I'm so fed up with the "no good pizza in philly" myth. Even before these snobby places opened, there were plenty of fantastic places to get a pizza in Philly. Just because it's not a cracker crust with a stingy smear of sauce and a couple shreds of mozzarella like New York, does not make it bad pizza. I've been plenty of places in this country where papa johns is the best you can get. Sure, a lot of places are lazy, and have bad dough, sickly sweet ragu sauce, and gubment cheese. I've had plenty of pizza just as bad in trenton, new york, or connecticut.”

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4. Anonymous said... on Mar 31, 2010 at 02:12PM

“This place is not that good, I'm sorry. Real Neapolitan pizza which they try emulate is far superior to the quality of their pies at Zavino. The pies are over-cooked and the qulaity of the ingredients are just ok. Try Keste, Numero 28 and Motorino in NYC and then go back Zavino's and give me your honest opinion. They are little more expensive but worth it. They all use caputo flour, seed oil and other common ingredients in neapolitan pizza. I hope Zavino's keeps improving and I applaud their efforts on making good quality pizza.”

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5. Anonymous said... on Mar 31, 2010 at 02:42PM

“Trestevere, Adam? Ok, we get it. You've been to Italia. Surprised you didn't say Ortona. Or Lecco. Been there, too, I guess? By the way, sipping negroni might be sophiscated in Philly, but it's no big deal in Italia.”

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6. Anonymous said... on Mar 31, 2010 at 04:20PM

“I couldn't agree with Mr. Erace more here. I don't live in the neighborhood but love it so much I still go once a week. They had a rabbit terrine that was butttta. I'm sad to see the Sopressata didn't get a shout out though. I personally enjoy sitting at the bar for great convo with the knowledgable tenders but look foward to sitting outside cause that oven is freakin' HOT.
Reaally appreciated the Sister Act 2 reference.”

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7. Pat said... on Mar 31, 2010 at 05:22PM

“Haven't been to Zavino's as yet....but after reading this review and comments I can hardly wait to eat the BEST pizza in Philly....and that would be ZAVINO'S!!”

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8. richojr said... on Mar 31, 2010 at 07:38PM

“Been there a half a dozen times. Haven't had a bad experience yet. I'm working my way down through the pizza menu, and so far the sopprasetta is my favorite.
I can second one of the previous posters - the rabbit terrine was supurb!
My daughter, a bit of a wine fan, and I sat at the bar one night and enjoyed a knowledgable banter with the bartenders about the appropriate pairings for some diverse courses.”

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9. Tags said... on Apr 1, 2010 at 02:01PM

“Have you tried the pizza at Gaetano's in Clifton Heights (Springfield Rd) yet? They'll hang with anybody's pie, especially the sauce.”

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10. Anonymous said... on Apr 1, 2010 at 04:33PM

“We had a very nice meal at the very petite sized Zavino. Very good Antipasto, Excellent Pasta (small plate, but, for a fair price) and a really great pizza. It is different than Stella, Taconelli, Delorenzo or other regional faves in that it is a very basic pie....not a lot of bells and whistles (no wood or coal ovens here). But, that said, it is a moderately thin-nish crust pie, where the crust serves as a canvas for loads of fresh and delicious toppings. Unlike many of the "other" famous pizzerias in the region, this one features a great wine list...all selections fairly priced. All things considered an excellent addition to the Philly Pie scene.”

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11. Anonymous said... on Apr 6, 2010 at 01:30PM

“Bagna cauda (traditionally) has anchovies in it...anything with fish in it is NOT vegetarian”

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12. Anonymous said... on Apr 14, 2010 at 09:03AM

“Zavino is on the list of 'to visit', no doubt. Ah would it be a pizza review in this town if it didn't have some quip from some paunchy, balding NYC d1ck touting something else? I wish this piegration down 95 would friggin sojourn itself into Delco. Seriously, if someone had the nerve to open a joint like this in an enclave of this woefully fed county (Pappou's excluded), you'd have to lie to people to keep them from clogging up the front entrance. How can the oven at Iron Hill smell so good yet product such lousy, overpriced pies? After the first month of having your place open, you'd be harried by the thought, 'we should have charged more'.”

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13. Anonymous said... on May 5, 2010 at 12:47PM

“AWESOME!”

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14. Nastja said... on Jan 31, 2011 at 10:23AM

“Once he has obtained is not clear. I liked it, but something was missing. Do not you think?”

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15. Anonymous said... on Mar 14, 2011 at 01:09PM

“I was recommended Zavino by my father who lives a few blocks away. So one day I figured that I stop by and check it out. On first sight the place is impressive in an intimate way, but generally a very small space. I took a seat at the bar and had to get the bartender's attention although the bar was sparsely populated. He provided me a menu and made me a pretty good martini as I waited for my pizza's (ordered 2 to go). It wasn't until a white couple came into the restaurant and sat next to me that I realized how much I was treated differently. The bartender's attitude immediately turned to perky and welcoming when attending to the white couple (also, there was no indication from their conversation to say that they were familiar with each other). He subsequently went into full service mode - explaining all the specials, other intricacies of the menu, etc. I felt extremely insulted. I did what was the only thing left for me to do - I requested the manager and explained in detail how the service that I received was sub-par to other customers and that I was not only disappointed but insulted. The Manager was decent enough to offer an apology of which I accepted. However, what I witnessed was far from a pleasant dining experience. I encourage all Non-white paying customers - if you get treated in an insufficient manner at any restaurant, request the manager, blog about your experience, and never support them again financially.
Otherwise, the pizza was OK.

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