Melograno

Still the best and now more of it: The quintessential Italian BYO makes a move, doubles in size, takes risks, triumphs.

Posted: January 18, 2009

There was always a pinch of magic to the pancetta-scented air inside the old Melograno. With little more than 34 seats, an open kitchen, and a bare-white decor, that bright corner room became one of the city's best trattorias and a jam-packed emblem of the BYOB revolution.

But Melograno's owners, chef Gianluca Demontis and his wife, Rosemarie Tran, encountered the same fate that confronted so many other early BYO pioneers, many of whom have since sold out, expanded or acquired liquor licenses: These tiny dining-room stages simply weren't built for longevity.

An imminent rent increase curtailed Melograno's cozy run at 22d and Spruce, obliging the search for a bigger space. But would the subsequent move to a double-sized room several blocks from the old haunt spoil the simple magic that charmed its early success?

After a couple of fabulous meals ranging from the unusual (earthy snail-and-porcini soup) to refined classics (gutsy pasta all'Amatriciana with homemade pancetta), the answer is an emphatic no.

Not only has Melograno managed to mantain its golden touch with authentic trattoria fare, it has also been able to translate the conviviality of its neighborhood nook to a larger, more urban space. It's still a casual BYO, with reasonable prices and unpretentious (albeit well-informed and efficient) service. But it also feels a little more grown-up on many levels.

Set into the middle of the 2000 block of Sansom Street, the long, butter-colored dining room hums with city energy, its center wall pierced by arches that open toward the back on Demontis' open kitchen. There's a rustic feeling to the weathered floor and whitewashed wainscoting. And a variety of seating areas, from the (slightly) quieter front tables to the comfy banquette that runs beneath vintage photos of Demontis' family trattoria in Rome, to the large hammered-copper round tables near the kitchen that have a familial feel, lend the space both bustle and intimacy.

Ultimately, though, it is Demontis' native Roman touch behind the stove that gives Melograno its continued luster. He's kept all the dishes that made the restaurant a hit to begin with, from the silky ribbons of house-made pappardelle cloaked in truffled walnuts and mushrooms to the bistecca alla Fiorentina, a juicy grilled T-bone served hot over cool white beans infused with sage and garlic.

The more spacious new kitchen, though, has allowed the chef to take some more adventurous risks with the menu. That crock of "lumache" snail soup, for example, was one of the best things I've eaten all year. The tender snails luxuriated like exotic mushrooms in an earthy broth sparked with fresh green olive oil, playing texture tricks beside chunks of snappy porcinis and chewy rings of ditalini pasta.

Demontis gambled brilliantly on a creative marine twist to carbonara, replacing the usual pancetta with salty anchovy, and sparking the spaghetti's rich sauce of shirred egg and pecorino with toasted pistachios and white truffle. And I've never seen pig trotters quite as refined as Melograno's terrine. Slow-stewed, deboned and potted into a mold, they're sliced into a sheer white square and laid atop warm red lentils. As the white sheet warms to a lacy translucence, it adds a whisper of "oink" to the lentil stew.

Demontis has also begun salt-curing his own pancetta in the basement, and those well-crisped lardon strips add a luminous savor to the irresistible Amatriciana, which simmers the hearty, oversized tubes of paccheri rigatoni in chile-flared tomato spice.

It would be unrealistic to label Melograno flawless. The shrimp and white bean salad was a tad too brackish, the grilled octopus with frisee salad a little bland. The fried organic chicken livers with tomato-onion confit (really, just exotic chicken nuggets) were overcooked a shade past perfect pink. A duck confit-wild mushroom risotto was good enough, but lacked the creamy richness to count as great.

The crushing weekend mobs are another downside to this perpetually busy restaurant. But going for a weeknight meal - the only time Melograno accepts reservations - is an easy solution.

And with those few exceptions, I found this food worth the wait. The pastas are diverse and expertly crafted, from ravioli filled with velvety pumpkin puree in saged brown butter to the zipper-edged pappardelle tossed with silken threads of braised wild boar.

Much of the appeal to Melograno's cooking, though, is its knack for elevating deceptively simple dishes with good ingredients and a knowing touch.

The grilled scallop appetizer is one example, the perfectly seared rounds paired with a long-stemmed artichoke roasted to a lemony, nutty snap. A Berkshire pork chop, marinated overnight in a rosemaried porchetta rub, was amazingly tender over savoy cabbage braised to savory sweetness with golden raisins and pine nuts.

A light sage and tomato "acquapazza" broth for simmering is the key to the fillets of fresh branzino. The creamy richness of truffled wine sauce and more artichokes, meanwhile, was substantial enough to stand up to an oil-rich fillet of seared black cod.

An autumnal stuffing of dried figs and walnuts plumped two beautifully roasted quails tanged with a glaze of reduced pomegranate (the English translation of melograno). A touch of balsamic vinegar gave just the right sweet-tart kiss to the richly braised, fork-tender short rib over polenta.

The addictively homey chicken Senese, a lightly crisped cutlet topped with soft folds of prosciutto, peppery arugula, and milky chunks of cool mozzarella, is the kind of thing Mamma would make - if she lived in Rome and really loved you.

There's no doubt Melograno's tiramisu comes from that same place - an egg-rich family recipe that layers creamy, marsala-scented zabaglione and mascarpone with espresso-soaked ladyfingers in a glass bowl dusted with cocoa. I tried, with little success, not to eat it all.

There are more distinctive sweets: a ginger-tinged creme brulee, a coconut panna cotta, a surprisingly exotic ciabatta bread pudding perfumed with star anise, cardamom and pistachios. But it's the tiramisu, that ubiquitous Italian dessert elevated from the mundane, that best symbolizes what makes Melograno so special.

This restaurant has built a following on its gift for making a familiar Philly concept, the Italian BYOB, as good as it can be. I'm just thrilled to know this little gem survived the move to larger quarters, and that Gianluca Demontis didn't forget to pack his pinch of magic.


Next Sunday, restaurant critic Craig LaBan reviews Alison Two in Fort Washington. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com.

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