THE SCENE: Sometime in early December, commuters along Route 252 witnessed a change: A stylish new sign suddenly appeared where the one for Alberto’s Authentic Italian Cuisine & Steakhouse once stood. And yet, other than the snazzy new Newtown Grill moniker, nothing else hinted at what was happening behind the scenes at this local landmark.
Further investigation (and a timely media blitz) revealed that Alberto’s had undergone quite a makeover. More a matter of attitude than aesthetics, the changes were subtle. The restaurant’s façade remains the same, as do all the private dining spaces. (Its monastery-like, brick and terra-cotta wine cellar remains a superb spot for a private party.)
The most visible alterations happened in the renamed Sole Bar and its adjoining dining room. The latter now has a newfound intimacy—and a barrier from the bar crowd—via an open, geometric wood shelving unit and a dash of high-tops (pictured below). A fresh color scheme of Tuscan gold, cobalt and burnt sienna (done in a faux finish) brightens the place up, as does the coordinating band of blue above the bar, a Ferrari-red vintage hand slicer, and an antipasto station decked out with imported cheeses and meats.
As is the look du jour, two amply sized flat-screen HD TVs flank the back of the equally large U-shaped bar, elevating this once stoic, special-occasion-only restaurant into a game-worthy venue. Contemporary lighting with cobalt glass shades adds hipness, but the coolest part of the room is the cozy leather seating area complete with a gas fireplace. No doubt there will be a few minor scuffles to score this coveted pod.
THE FOOD: Deciphering what’s new about chef Mike Rigney’s dishes was a little challenging during our visit, as the menu still featured the Alberto’s logo and was heavy on Italian offerings—particularly pasta. Having heard good things about the certified Prime Angus steaks (exceptional marbling, texture and firmness; aged for at least 21 days), we bellied up to the 14-ounce 28-day dry-aged New York strip and Delmonico rib-eye with hot diavolo peppers and smoked sea salt.
The rib-eye was one of the best steaks I’ve had the good fortune to sink my teeth into. Rigney’s secret blend of seasonings combined with precision searing at 1,800 degrees to create a crisp, savory coating that complemented the spicy-sweet sautéed hot peppers. The interior of this hefty cut was a work of art—crimson, soft and oozing with natural beef flavor.
With its light, crispy, peppery, chargrilled outer edge, the brawny dry-aged strip delivered an even bolder dose of carnivore heaven. For being so thick, it had a perfectly pink belly. The mashed potatoes accompanying both steaks were simply prepared with a nice fluff and a mouthwatering balance of garlic, butter and salt. If the kitchen served only one thing, steaks should be it.
Our salads were enormous. The Mozzarella Bufala—imported fresh mozzarella slices paired with brackish, supple ribbons of prosciutto, meat-roasted red peppers, basil and light, fruity olive oil—had a garden-fresh aura. The Bietole—roasted beets and peppery baby arugula with crumbled goat cheese and walnuts—was also satisfying. And the texture-rich Mandarini salad—chilled mandarin oranges tossed with organic greens and surrounded by crispy endive, roasted pecans and goat cheese—is a fine option for those who’d prefer a sweet, savory start over Newtown Grill’s more piquant options.
The littleneck clams—15 or so al dente sea treats—were just briny enough to awaken the palate without overpowering the buttery, peppery white wine and garlic broth. The only thing missing was a toasted crostini for dipping.
I happened to observe several groups of diners nibbling on various antipasto/charcuterie combinations (one example pictured above) embellished with olives, figs, nuts, eggplant caponata, roasted peppers, marmalade and grilled artichokes. A combo of figs, balsamic vinegar marmalade and Gorgonzola and Parmesan cheeses had one customer gushing, and it sounded like a good place to start—or end—your meal.
And speaking of great endings, the cappuccino and espresso are the real thing at Newtown Grill—bold and smooth, with a creamy froth.
THE EXPERIENCE: Newtown Grill was a bit sleepy on the night of our initial visit—hardly a surprise since it was the Sunday after Thanksgiving. It was also the night the Eagles took on the Patriots, so we opted to sit in the freshly redone bar area. We had wine at the bar, then dinner at one of the two-tops.
An abundance of attention from the staff came our way all night, and we wound up staying longer than anticipated thanks to A.J. Feeley’s thrilling on-field performance. Our bartender treated us to a couple tastes of wine. And when the kitchen made an unclaimed bowl of fettuccine Bolognese, they delivered it to us free of charge (it was tasty). The bar is non-smoking, which despite one disgruntled patron’s opinion, made the whole dining experience that much more enjoyable.
After our short round of tasting at the bar, we ventured to the fireplace and sunk into the leather sofa, which left me fantasizing about curling up with a good book. (I’d even suggest transforming the private dining room across the way into a lounge with more comfy seating.)
Service was quick, leaving us barely enough time to finish one course before the next one was delivered. Though, in fairness, we waited so long to order that the kitchen was about to shut down for the evening.
If you’re like me and have eyes bigger than your stomach, think twice before over-ordering. Given the kitchen’s abundant portions, it’s easy to see why people come here for family celebrations. I could feed my teenage son for two days with one of the steak-and-potato combos and a pasta dish. Salads, too, are definitely sharable.
THE SKINNY: With several corporate campuses in the neighborhood and the continuing influx of younger, more affluent families looking for casual but upscale dining, re-branding Alberto’s was a wise move for partners Marco Tarantino, Alfredo Giannaccari and executive chef Mike Rigney. Management should be commended for rethinking its formula, being open to the evolution of dining out, and offering varied price points—all of which will help attract a younger crowd. For the time being, the age range largely conforms to that of Alberto’s original clientele—mid-40s and older.
The Sole Bar’s vibe is unpretentious and convivial, with a welcoming sense of Cheers-like camaraderie—and if you go by the numbers, it appears to be attracting a large customer base. The menu allows customers to gauge how much they’re eating—and spending—while the move toward a value wine list (a grander Captain’s List is available upon request) is perfect for those intimidated by $6-and-above glasses and $30-plus bottles. Happy hour, wine flight specials and Sunday BYO dinners are all wise touches.
The restaurant business is about survival of the fittest—and reinvention is the ultimate weapon. Change is good, and change takes time. For Newtown Grill, tweaking an already excellent menu just a bit to reflect lighter, healthier tastes would go a long way in attracting younger eaters without turning off its loyal customers.
Location: 191 S. Newtown Street Road, Newtown Square; (610) 356-9700, italiansteakhouse.com
Cuisine: Italy meets Texas, with an assortment of pastas, steaks and seafood
Price: $16-$30 for most entrées
Attire: Jeans to business casual
Atmosphere: Warm and unpretentious
Hours: Dinner: 4-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 4-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 3:30-9 p.m. Sunday. Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Sunday brunch: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Bar menu offered from 4 p.m.
Extras: Several private dining rooms, nice TVs for catching the game