Reinventing the Veal

An Old City favorite toes the conventional BYOB line instead.

By Kirsten Henri
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jun. 21, 2006

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Radicchio
314 York Ave. 215.627.6850. www.radicchio-cafe.com
Cuisine: Italian. Again.
Hours: Mon.-Thurs., 11:45am-2:30pm and 4:30-10pm; Fri.-Sat., 11:45am-2:30pm and 4:30-11pm; Sun., 3:45-9:45pm.
Prices: $5-$26.
Smoking: No.
Atmosphere: Toeing the acceptable-adorable BYOB line.
Service: On point, but with a tendency to omit.
Food: Pretty good Italian. Again.

People always want to know which restaurant is my favorite. I can't answer that question. It's like asking which one of your children you love best. You might actually have a favorite, but you can never admit which it is in public. Plus, I'm always changing my mind, depending on how each one of the little urchins behaves on any given visit.

I do, however, love to ask people which restaurant is their favorite. Hypocrisy, you say? I call it research.

Radicchio, an Italian BYOB on the relatively quiet north end of Old City, is one of those places that comes up over and over again as a favorite. It's not new--it opened back in 2002--but it's mentioned with enough frequency to pique my attention.

Since we've never reviewed it in PW and there's currently a pandemic of Italian BYOBs sweeping across Philadelphia (closely followed by a widespread panic of Asian joints), it seemed like a good time to investigate one that's managed to stick around and consistently garner praise, especially in a location that's a bit off the beaten path.

Would the tiny Radicchio live up to its word of mouth? Or would it suffer the same fate of manic overhyping that afflicts so many highly recommended restaurants? Sadly, more often than not, the places people insist are the best ever end up being more disappointing than exciting.

Radicchio turned out to be neither disappointing nor exciting, but a perfectly nice place to pass an evening with friends. It plays the now-predictable part of the neighborhood restaurant: It's BYOB, it's small, it has very little in the way of decor. (Radicchio relies mostly on large windows overlooking the street, charming Italian ceramics and marble tabletops.) Tables are squished together, and the kitchen is sort of open.

Would I travel there regularly from outside the neighborhood, wait in line (they don't take reservations) for an hour and later daydream about a dish I ate there? Nope. Would I bring friends from out of town there to impress them with Philadelphia's dining scene? Nope. Would I be upset if I had to eat there again? Nope.

There were many dishes to enjoy, starting with a complimentary bruschetta, glossy with oil and overflowing with ripe tomatoes full of the flavor that makes this dish worthwhile. An appetizer of warm buffalo mozzarella, more tomato chunks, basil and long slices of portobello mushroom was pleasing--particularly because of the added surprise of heat. This salad is rarely served at room temperature (as it should be) and is usually a thankless pile of chilly cheese and mealy, mushy tomato, so this was an especially appealing twist.

A simple bowl of steamed clams and mussels in a seasoned white wine broth was successfully minimalist--each sweet clam and plump, buttery mussel visible from wide, yawning shells. The broth was seasonally light, balancing brininess with a punch of garlic that did wonders for the unremarkable bread.

Insalata di campo--a green salad dressed in olive oil and vinegar tossed with sliced radishes, green beans and bits of olive--was crisp and fresh, but not really impressive since I could've easily made it myself at home. Ricchi e poveri--a dense stew of cannelini beans, asparagus tips and shrimp--was bland and seemed ill-conceived, with none of the ingredients doing the others any sensory favors.

A special of tangy homemade black linguine with marinara sauce, scallops and shrimp was well-received as far as the actual pasta went, but the seafood preparation failed to thrill. Fusilli Soprano--corkscrew pasta with tender chicken, broccoli rabe, tomato and mammoth chunks of garlic--was a hit with everyone at the table thanks to its rustic style and earthiness.

Tender lamb scottadito, a pile of tiny grilled chops, was nicely cooked with a pleasant char outside and the meat inside still juicy. I could've done without the tepid, unsalted pile of mashed potato that accompanied it. Veal rollatini, another special, was a thin strip of veal wrapped around an asparagus spear with prosciutto and mozzarella and buried under a blush sauce of tomatoes, peas, mushrooms and a touch of cream that was pleasingly rich.

We ordered chicken saltimbocca, but were served veal, another thinly pounded cutlet pressed with prosciutto and sage leaves. Although it wasn't exactly what we were expecting, it was still a well-made version of a classic preparation. Another entree of pretty pink langostines lined up in a row, split and drizzled with balsamic dressing was also much appreciated--the amazing sweetness of the meat worked well with the sharpness of the vinegar.

Aside from the saltimbocca goof, the service was well-attuned to our needs. What irritated me more than the meat switch was the announcement of the specials without also announcing the price. Can every waiter in the city with this habit stop doing it, like, immediately? It's totally presumptuous and, worse still, requires the customer to work to ask to find out what it is.

Nobody wants to work--or worry--when they're out to dinner, whether it's their favorite place or not.

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