A new pizza joint brings delicious pies to Midtown Village.
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.
112 S. 13th St. 215.732.2400.
Follow on Twitter @zavino
PW's Taste of Philly 2014