At Fairmount's new Italian BYOB, the food lags behind the stylish urban ambience.

Posted: March 25, 2007

It seems inconceivable that a Philadelphia neighborhood can have existed this long without landing an Italian BYOB. Those satisfyingly simple trattorias have spread in epidemic proportions across the city in recent years, and become, like the corner coffee shop, the local tavern, or a convenient Wawa, one of the basic amenities of a quality urban life.

So it's no surprise that my friends in Fairmount were frothing with excitement when they finally got their Gnocchetti Moment with the recent opening of L'Oca.

The best news here is that L'Oca is a vast improvement over the boarded-up beer distributor it replaced, transforming the old Schnell store across from the Eastern State Penitentiary into a glassy corner bistro that has what co-owner Jack Henderson likes to call "downtown style." From the cafe-windowed exterior to the exposed air duct, neutral chic, square-patterned wall, and bustling open kitchen near the entrance, L'Oca has a casually sophisticated urban vibe that has become a trademark of the Philly BYO.

But is L'Oca relying more on style than substance?

L'Oca's chef and co-owner, Luca Garutti, has done a good job crafting a menu that is distinct from the cookie-cutter offerings found at so many of Center City's trattorias. The Lombardy-born Garutti, 40, an alum of local kitchens like Ristorante Panorama and La Locanda del Ghiottone, presents a number of rarely seen Northern Italian specialties.

From the Piedmont there is bagna cauda, a creamy achovy and garlic dip that accompanies a splendid antipasto platter laden with sliced peppercorn salami and smoky speck, great grilled veggies (Belgian endive!) and crostini toasts smeared with silky pate made from mushrooms and goose liver.

L'Oca means "the goose," and a braised goose stew from the Langhe anchors one of the kitchen's best entrees, a pappardelle tossed with tenderly braised meat cloaked in a tomato gravy that has an almost buttery richness.

Garutti's most memorable dish, though, is the gnocchetti. These golf ball-sized baked dumplings of semolina bechamel, with tiny bits of minced oyster mushrooms, asparagus and prosciutto suspended in their creamy cheese centers, come glazed with sage-infused brown butter. They're rich, but quickly devoured.

For all its appealing promise, though, L'Oca still has more than a few rough edges to smooth. The service, run by first-time restaurateur Henderson, is usually friendly but often overwhelmed and lost, as it was on our first visit, when simply bringing water and enough wine glasses was a challenge. Courses were occasionally brought in fits, with half the table waiting several minutes for their meals.

But it is Garutti's kitchen that has the most work to do. To begin with, he can stop calling the pastas on his menu "homemade," as he readily admitted in a phone interview that they are purchased from Severino.

They are perfectly good pastas, and what Garutti does with them is fine, like the square-cut saffron spaghetti alla chitarra that come tossed with an elegant saute of scallops, mushrooms and pancetta. The terminology may simply be an English-as-second-language mistranslation ("fresh pasta" would be more accurate), but it becomes misleading to savvy diners who know the difference. It is simply annoying to anticipate something unusual like casoncelli - a Bergamo-style stuffed pasta and staple at nearby Vetri that is typically filled with an exotic Medici-spiced stuffing - only to get plain cheese ravioli topped with walnuts in brown butter.

Garutti promises to start making his pastas once the rush and staffing challenges of opening a new restaurant settle down. Until then, many of his efforts here are certainly worthy of neighborhood attention, but not necessarily a drive across town.

Among the most distinctive dishes was the cauliflower souffle - sformato di cavolfiore - a rich pedestal of baked custard infused with cauliflower goodness that came with a side of sauteed shrimp with asparagus and shaved artichokes. The dish would have been a dream had those little shrimp not been so overcooked.

Overcooked shrimp also detracted from an otherwise perfect asparagus risotto, which had the hardest part down - the ideal consistency of firm rice grains in creamy gravy.

Garutti's fondness for game is another notable feature here. Aside from the goose, it appears in tender medallions of seared venison, whose gaminess is lavished in a rich wine and blueberry gravy. Snails braised with tomatoes over polenta is appealing, but a little flat on depth of flavor.

I loved the chef's straightforward take on the ubiquitous branzino, searing a meaty, boneless fillet that levitated on garlic toasts over a brothy bowl of delicately braised fennel and shellfish.

But for every good dish, it seemed, another left something to be desired. The short ribs were an inelegant pile of falling-apart meat, but they were infused with the hearty flavor of a good slow braise. The pork chop bracciola, meanwhile, was rather elegantly wrapped in its band of pancetta and sage, but the overcooked meat was dry and oddly bland.

L'Oca's desserts are considerably more typical than the savory menu, but equally hit-or-miss. The creme brulee was hastily burnt and still grainy with raw sugar. The profiteroles were soggy. The tiramisu was dry.

At least they were homemade.

Garutti's efforts finally pay off with one particularly nice confection - a sliced apple crostata layered over good pastry cream and a delicate crust. L'Oca's true potential undoubtedly lies in this earnest slice of pie. And, for a neighborhood that has waited longer than most for its own Italian BYOB, perhaps a taste may be just enough to hold onto.

A correction. A trombone player for the band Brass Heaven was misidentified in a recent review of Warmdaddy's. His correct name is Jermaine Bryson.

Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/craiglaban.

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