Critic of record Craig LaBan filed a beaming three-bell review of Brigantessa in this weekend's Inquirer, even going so far as to drop a full-on "OMG!" in the process. So what was it about the new East Passyunk forneria that inspired such squealing — stunning food, perhaps, or a bit of wine-soaked exuberance? Not exactly:
The slightly calmer upstairs dining room, done in earth tones, mahogany floors and actual soundproofing on the ceilings (OMG!) captures a casual elegance that hits a perfect tone for date-night or dinner with friends, aided by well-informed servers who are able to guide us to the unusual dishes and complex menu.
Of course, no business earns an "excellent" rating on soundproofing panels alone, and LaBan had no shortage of praise for the food, either. The much-hyped pizza is deemed "very good," though here the critic seems at odds with himself, describing the pies as "textbook examples from the vera pizza Napoletana school of puffy-crust soft-centered rounds" and then citing "quibble[s] with the overly doughy density of Cicala's crust" in the same breath.
But no matter, because "what most intrigues [him] is the rest of the rambling, delicious menu," anyway. Highlights for LaBan included sausage-stuffed long hots, "duck rillettes smoked from pizza oven embers plunged into the simmering fat," entrees of mackerel and hanger steak, and the entirety of the pasta section. Squid did more than its fair share in impressing the critic, lending itself both to lovingly described squid-ink pasta and an antipasto of calamari and zucchini ribbons.
A "smart" bar program and a slate of desserts including a new "must-eat sweet" (a budino of couscous and chocolate) lead up to the final verdict:
I'm thrilled Brigantessa has evolved to become much more than yet another great pizza hall. It's an essential new piece of the city's rich Italian mosaic.
Meanwhile, at Rittenhouse newcomer Aldine, Philly Mag critic Trey Popp was pondering over some head-scratching meals that, thankfully, evened out to show significant promise by the end. George and Jennifer's first solo effort nabbed two-and-a-half stars from the critic — an extremely solid showing, given that his first dinner began with a "disorienting" amuse bouche and ended like this:
Even if it hadn’t ended with vegan fennel fritters flecked with micro-celery and tamarind drizzles (a dessert for people who don’t want one), and a prodigiously buttered hot rye that filled a hefty goblet to the rim (a serving size for people with no sense of a proper one), this would have been a hard dinner to wrap your head around.
Happily, things went well enough on the second go-around to make up for it. Early courses of oysters and raw beef both "subverted expectations [...] gracefully," while a further succession of acid-sparked plates and textural contrasts showed off what Popp finds most interesting about Sabatino: "cooking that energizes rather than enervates."
The Sabatinos’ first joint production was a long time coming, and it’s still catching up to their ambitions, but it shows encouraging signs of being worth the wait.
In need of a relatively healthy meal for the post-holiday come-down, Brian Freedman fell head-over-heels for Lo Spiedo, the Vetri family's new Navy Yard locale. There, he found a number of noteworthy dishes, from pork ribs to surprising spit-roasted octopus to a rotisserie chicken that was "everything that can go right with chicken when it's shown respect." Still, even after all that, this was the description that frankly left us panting:
Polenta cornbread, based on a recipe by Jeff Michaud, also outperformed its ordinarily humble M.O., and as I spooned my way from the cracker-crisp top and closer to the heat of the cast iron it arrived in, the polenta became ever more tenuous in form, nearly falling apart from its anointment with meat drippings collected from the wood-fire grill.
Throw in an "electrically refreshing" gin and tonic and other selections that ensure "you will drink brilliantly" at Lo Spiedo, and a side of mac and cheese so good that Freedman and his wife straight-up pilfered it from their own child — "she should learn to be quicker with a fork," Freedman deadpans — and it all "adds up to a whole new reason to head down to South Broad."
Adam Erace had a more uneven experience as he visited Fishtown restaurant/butcher hybrid Kensington Quarters for City Paper. While he admires the quality of the meat coming through butcher Bryan Mayer's locker, chef Damon Menapace's way with meat, and the restaurant's admirable mission performed "without the zeitgeist-mandated dose of farmer worship," he found much of the food still needed a bit of work.
"Ephemeral" parsnip ravioli were standouts, though most of the restaurant's best offerings were meatier: "fragrant" pastrami, "falling-apart" brisket, and housemade sausages "all tingly with garlic" all made the cut. But the plates were not necessarily unbridled successes:
There's no doubt Menapace can cure and cook meat. What needs more tinkering are the supporting roles, [which] felt phoned-in and dreary as winter rain.
Unfortunately, according to Erace, "desserts were lost causes" across the board. Even so, the meal's highs were sufficient to leave the critic with a seemingly sunny disposition,with his final say coming back to trust:
I trust Kensington Quarters will become a great addition to Fishtown.