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Taste of Italy on the Main Line

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Anyone who follows food knows about the Philadelphia region’s recent rise as a top-flight dining destination. Before that, our culinary rep fluctuated. We’ve had our share of prominent establishments, cultivating several nationally acclaimed celebrity chefs and restaurateurs. 

But if there’s been one constant in Center City and on the Main Line, it’s our stellar Italian cuisine. And as we continue to experience an influx of fabulous newcomers, the old-timers keep living up to their rock-solid reputations. 

So it seems only fitting that we pay tribute to the region’s pacesetters, old and new. By no means is this a comprehensive list. For that, simply page through our restaurant listings and take your pick.

Ralph’s Sicilian calamari//Photography by Steve Legato

the new upstairs kitchen at Vetri

URBAN INSTITUTIONS   

GQ described it as “probably the best Italian restaurant in America.” Bon Appétit ranked it among the country’s top 10 pasta restaurants. Superlatives like that aren’t handed out to just any eatery with a knack for braising pork cheeks and rolling gnocchi. 

Truly, no other restaurant in Center City is more deserving of such lavish praise than Vetri. Since opening its doors in 1999, this magical little dining room on Spruce Street continues to be the proving ground for the humble yet intensely committed Marc Vetri and his consummately polished manager/business partner, Jeffrey Benjamin. Add exceptionally chosen wine pairings and flawless service to the multi-course, $155-per-person tasting menu, and you don’t have to be a big-time critic to feel like you’ve won the gastronomic lottery.

1312 Spruce St., Philadelphia, (215) 732-3478, www.vetriristorante.com.

Cynics bemoaning the death of fine dining probably haven’t been to La Famiglia Ristorante. A culinary institution—if not a stronghold—for champion wines, polished service and Old World ambiance, it remains as grand today as it was when it debuted in 1976.

The Sena family still runs its venerable enclave with grace and style. You’ll pay for what you get here. The pan-seared Chilean sea bass tartufo with black truffle sauce is a hefty $29.95, while the impeccable veal chop slowly stewing in porcini mushrooms is a lofty $39.95. Warning: Specials can soar into the $40s—but you’ll certainly enjoy what you’re getting. The 15,000-bottle wine list is a perennial Wine Spectator award winner. Ultimately, this total gastronomic package is proof that fine dining is not dead—it’s just residing comfortably at La Famiglia.

8 S. Front St., Philadelphia, (215) 922-2803, www.lafamiglia.com.

If change is good, it stands to reason that restaurant owners should follow that adage and refresh their establishments every five years or so. Don’t tell Richie Santore, owner of The Saloon. Since 1967, his impressive restaurant on Seventh Street has remained positively static—and a power scene like no other in town. To visit is like dining in antiquity: old-time Philadelphia memorabilia is everywhere, iconic signs and giant tchotchkes a backdrop to the tasteful history that’s playing out on each plate. The 15-ounce veal chop ($38) is as epic as ever.

Back in the 1990s, Richie flirted with a chef or two who tried contemporizing the cuisine, and it did take a few decades for Santore to accept anything other than cash or American Express. Otherwise, it’s still the same old Saloon. If you go, be sure to ask about the time Billy Joel hijacked the second-floor piano for a spontaneous show.

750 S. 7th St., Philadelphia, (215) 627-1811, www.saloonrestaurant.net.

Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, Francesco Dispigno would be blushing were he alive today. His Ralph’s, the longest-running Italian restaurant in the country (circa 1900), spawned an infusion of chain restaurants modeled after the South Philly neighborhood red gravy joint. 

Now fifth-generation owned, the rest-aurant remains a favorite of visitors and locals alike. On any given night, the upstairs private spaces and downstairs dining room teem with spaghetti-spinning, marinara-lapping diners—just as they did a century ago. Suburbanites can get a taste of Ralph’s at its King of Prussia outpost.

760 S. 9th St., Philadelphia, (215) 627-6011; 480 N. Gulph Road, King of Prussia, (484) 238-1990, www.ralphs-restaurant.com.

Le Virtù’s dining room

NEW … AND NEWISH

Restaurateur Stephen Starr keeps his typical glitz factor in check while highlighting the sublime fare of one of his long-running
players, chef Chris Painter, at this understated yet far-reaching eatery near Ritten-house Square.
Il Pittore transforms classic dishes into a taster’s paradise. Steamed monkfish offers delicate inspiration across the plate, while Painter’s Nebbiolo-braised short ribs have a cult-like following. It’s all produced in a bi-level space with rich woods and delicate hand-painted murals—an apt palette for this master’s culinary works of art.

2025 Sansom St., Philadelphia, (215) 391-4900, www.ilpittore.com.

Philly’s Kensington section may not have the same cool factor as nearby Northern Liberties or the ridiculously hip Fishtown, and this suits Modo Mio chef-owner Peter McAndrews just fine. McAndrews’ restaurant is a neighborhood place for neighborhood people, which still hasn’t stopped the foodies from flocking to it.

Spicy lamb stew, shaved duck breast, house-made penne—the creative (yet unpretentious) menu at this BYOB—served in a homey, welcoming space—is about as convivial as it gets.

161 W. Girard Ave., Philadelphia, (215) 203-8707.

The word “rustic” gets scribed quite often by food writers labeling Italian-style restaurants. The unapologetic proclamation here: Le Virtù successfully evokes the Italian countryside. Joe Cicala, whose credits include cooking at NYC’s famed Del Posto, cures his own meats, makes the pastas and continually sources local foodstuffs in a trattoria setting that’s so casual you can even play a game of bocce on its outside lawn. 

Comparisons with Vetri are inevitable, though Le Virtù has a more laid-back vibe. It’s authentic; it’s satisfying; and, yes, it’s pretty rustic.

1927 E. Passyunk Ave., Philadelphia, (215) 271-5626, www.levirtu.com.

Following the hype from East Pass-yunk darling Le Virtù, Cicala expanded his wholesome Italian brand with the introduction of the Neapolitan-skewed Brigantessa in late 2014. He even went to Italy to score a Pizzaiolo Verace certification and imported his wood-burning oven straight from Naples. That’s serious pizza business, mind you.

But it’s not all about pulling pies (though the cheffy oven-roasted clam, extra-virgin olive oil and parsley pizza is vital to your experience), and that’s why Cicala’s cred  is changing the game in Philly’s Italian scene. His bi-level space celebrates the true Italian staples that go beyond red-gravy-drenched plates. Strands of delicate pappardelle dance with roasted black chickpeas and an ultra-tender braised lamb dusted with fennel pollen; smoked cauliflower and vibrant pistachio gremolata champion a tender wood-grilled lamb loin. Then there’s Cicala’s wife, pastry chef Angela Rannali, who swaggers through familiar sweet endings (budino, cannoli).

1520 E. Passyunk Ave., Philadelphia, (267) 318-7341, www.brigantessaphila.com.

(From LEft): Antica’s sautéed Spanish octopus with white beans and pepperoncini, fresh lemon, and herbed

crostini; Antica’s hearty caprese salad

SUBURBAN BEST BETS

You sure can’t beat that dramatic Belmont Hills view, but there’s more to La Collina than meets the eye. With a consistent menu of pastas, seafood, meat dishes and quite possibly the greatest Caesar salad around; melodious ear candy—the same Thursday through Saturday night entertainers have been captivating patrons for years; and a dressed-up, fine dining motif, you have an oldie-but-goodie offering a smooth, timeless experience.

Meanwhile, La Collina’s bar is fun, sexy and, dare-it-be-said, the place to find attractive professionals. A cocktail here is intoxicating in so many ways, proving that some of the best views are the ones from within.

37-41 Ashland Ave., Bala Cynwyd, (610) 668-1780, www.lacollina.us.

Former National League Baseball player and coach Yogi Berra, a master at witticisms, once commented about a popular St. Louis restaurant, “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” He could’ve easily been referring to Limoncello Ristorante—except for the fact that everyone’s there anyhow. Limoncello certainly doesn’t lack in elbow-rubbing, inadvertent skin-on-skin closeness (it always seems so busy!). The restaurant’s formula is simple: consistently good food, friendly servers, a happy hour that’s a hive for nearby professionals. All of these make Limoncello one of the most successful restaurants in the entire western suburbs.

Lightning struck twice with the 2012 opening of Limoncello in Chester Springs. It too, like its borough sibling, is another one of those places where Yogi won’t be visiting anytime soon.

9 N. Walnut St., West Chester, (610) 436-6230, www.limoncellowc.com; 499 E. Uwchlan Ave., Chester Springs, (610) 524-3112, www.limoncellocs.com.

If South Philly is two parts location and one part “attytood,” Frankie’s Fellini Cafe definitely has those bases covered. For almost eight years, owner Frank Chiavaroli has commuted to Berwyn from his home near the Italian Market. “We can compete with any place in the city,” he says. 

Fellini appears no-frills and bare bones; the trattoria’s main décor is the chalk specials written on a wall panel or, maybe, the freshly made cannoli lining the back counter shelves. Just 16 tables reside inside this diminutive BYOB located within a speck of a strip center along Lancaster Avenue. 

Chef Victor Bologna has been a Frankie’s fixture since 1978, and his philosophy is to “focus on the food.” Homemade pastas, one of the burbs’ best veal chops, fresh-baked breads delivered direct from famed Sal & Jerry’s Bakery in Brooklyn—it’s all a part of what makes Frankie’s so authentic, and so supremely South Philly, even on this very Main Line stretch of Route 30.

678 Lancaster Ave., Berwyn, (610) 647-1737, www.frankiesfellinicafe.com.

It was late 2014 when the Pizzeria DiMeo team decided to branch off into downtown Wayne, acquainting Main Liners with its hip take on an osteria and a Neapolitan pizzeria. Manned by father-and-son chefs Pino and Antimo DiMeo, Ardé maintains a high-caliber level of care for ingredients, especially the mozzarella di Bufala imported weekly from Naples. 

While it’s hard to ignore the 11-deep lineup of house pizzas, prepared in a hulking 5,000-pound wood-burning pizza oven, decadent dishes like Pino’s tortiglioni, crafted from Old World family recipes, hit home with the wholesome experience the DiMeos and partner Scott Stein are going for. We encourage you to break off a hunk of Antimo’s handcrafted loaf and dab it into any of the pasta’s toothsome sauces. Italian cuisine was built for hearty endorsements, and you can consider this ours.

133 N. Wayne Ave., Wayne, (484) 580-6786, www.ardewayne.com.

Growing up in the restaurant business (his parents run Philadelphia’s Rose Tattoo Cafe), Sean Weinberg was well prepared to strike out on his own. But it was his time spent in Alba, Italy that inspired the CIA grad to sink his refined skill sets into a northern Italian concept backed by a wood-burning oven.

Now, with a decade of restaurateurship under his belt, Sean and his wife, Kelly, continue to thrive in the sleepy downtown of Malvern, particularly in recent years after undergoing a transition from BYOB to full-service bar. Slow-roasted meats, like the aromatic and unfussy porchetta, are the chef’s crown jewels, while his dedication to weekly foraging helps set his local-focused compositions one step above the region’s fellow farm-to-tablers. (Try the short rib ravioli with robiola cheese, beef brodo and cranberry mostarda—it’s everything he does best.)

Lighter bar fare—including the five-pack of bruschetta topped with whipped Gorgonzola, wood-roasted figs, pancetta and cipollini onion butter—only reaffirms that Weinberg has always been destined to have an enduring restaurant of his own.

7 W. King St., Malvern, (610) 644-4009, www.restaurantalba.com.

Driven by chefs Josh Friedberg and Gent Mema, who first met while working at Old City’s Spasso Italian Grill, Antica sets the pace for modernized Italian dining in the Brandywine Valley. The year-old BYOB is a worthy follow-up to Glen Mills’ still-humming Il Granaio. 

Unpretentious and affordable, Antica captivates local crowds with bright, un-complicated bowls of house-made pasta and balsamic-soaked strip steaks ($11 less than those at neighboring Brandywine Prime). But it’s the impeccably prepared seafood that makes these gents game-changers, though—particularly the Spanish octopus and the tableside-filleted whole bronzino.

1623 Baltimore Pike, Chadds Ford, (484) 770-8631, www.anticapa.com.

 

For more great Italian restaurants, see our dining listings.