As chain restaurants continue their relentless proliferation west of Philadelphia, a culinary counterculture is quietly stirring in the hinterland: Chefs are offering intimate meals in their own homes. There’s Allegria Ristorante Italiano in Exton; Francis Trzeciak’s famed Birchrunville Store Café; the word-of-mouth Martin’s Kitchen in sleepy Coventryville; and West Whiteland Township’s renowned Yellow Springs Inn. After dinner is over, the floors are swept and the kitchens are scoured. Then the proprietors simply lock the doors and head to bed.
One of the newest of these ambitious homespun endeavors is the Orangery at Glen Isle. The architecturally impressive, circa-1735 structure (a rumored stop on the Underground Railroad) stands majestically on eight tranquil acres at the western fringe of Downingtown, just off an otherwise gritty section of Business Route 30. The property is an unexpected haven, a lovely little dominion tucked neatly away from the nearby SEPTA line—if not quite secluded from the bustle beyond.
“Orangery” pays homage to the citrus-growing solariums that were once built on European estates; “Glen Isle” refers to the land on which the property sits, nestled snugly between two small streams. Crossing over one stream and down a gravel lane, guests park near the stone ruins of an old dairy barn, then traverse a brick walkway past verdant gardens, potted arrangements and assorted varieties of mature trees. The destination is a handsome white stucco mansion with a rounded porch and an inviting French doorway, not to mention a pool and a swing set, hinting that this is more than a restaurant—it’s someone’s home, too.
That would be Sabrina Lutz, who lives in this slice of paradise with her husband of 18 years, Paul, and their three children. A civil engineer by day, Paul has an obvious talent for historical restoration, and he built an intimately enclosed 40-seat sunporch to serve as the Orangery’s main dining room. The couple opened for dinner service in September 2011, and they continue to offer just one 6:30 p.m. seating Thursday-Saturday.
The 18th-century country setting suggests Continental, so it’s interesting to find instead a multicourse menu of distinctive Tuscan presentations. “We try to stay as authentic as possible,” says Sabrina, a self-professed lover of fine cooking, even on her days off. “Tuscany is very seasonal—lots of seafood, too, so I tend to use crab in springtime and zucchini, tomatoes and peppers from my garden in summer.”
Heartier fare like rabbit and quail make an appearance in autumn, and there’s always a featured pasta dish. The menu changes every two weeks, each course plated on delightfully mismatched china.
Our Insalata di Gamberi starter arrived in a dainty saucer, its tender shrimp resting atop a bed of organic greens in a mayonnaise-rich cocktail sauce. By the second course—a refreshing Caprese salad with ripe tomatoes, mozzarella and basil—we’d realized for certain that we were in for a simply executed Italian dinner. “I’m not a chef; I’m a cook,” Sabrina says. “My food isn’t perfect—just different.”
The Manicotti di Pesce—a delicate crêpe filled with salmon, tilapia, shrimp and crab in a white-cream béchamel and topped with tomato sauce—was light yet hearty. So were the Dolcetta di Granchio—twin crab cakes with a rémoulade sauce—and a porcini, shitake, cremini and portobello mushroom ragu served atop a crostini. A leafy spring mix with cherry tomatoes, grilled corn and red onions, the Insalata Mista made for a crisp and refreshing digestivo.
Our three revolving servers were friendly and accommodating, each providing basic service. My only qualm: the odd setting aside of used silverware after the first course, and then again after the second. “Um, can we have clean knives and forks?” I asked while pointing to the cocktail-sauce-smeared cutlery being called into action for a befuddling third time.
No matter. The tempting ricotta cake and accompanying Affogato al Caffè (“gelato drowned in coffee”) were relaxing epilogues to a fine home-cooked meal at this lovely orangery in the country that’s really just off the highway.
The Skinny: Diners have their pick of Italian restaurants in the area. Many are notable, yet none offers anything like the Tuscan-inspired authenticity and intimacy of Sabrina and Paul Lutz’s exceedingly modest Downingtown endeavor.