Zavino

The corner space has a casual, youthful vibe, but is deafeningly noisy.
The corner space has a casual, youthful vibe, but is deafeningly noisy.

Steven Gonzalez, crowned by some as a pizza king, turns out pies that are good, not great. It's his nightly specials that excel.

Posted: April 18, 2010

From a quick glance at the flour-dusted baby face that sidled up to our table at Zavino to check on our meal, I'd never have guessed that chef-owner Steven Gonzalez was even remotely near 30 years old.

But take a closer look at the angry welts that stripe his forearms - they're hard to miss as he wields a pizza cutter and dusts pinches of cheese atop finished pies in front of the furnace glow of his hot brick oven – and it's clear Gonzalez is a tested veteran of Philly's rapidly rising pizza wars.

With that circular oven hovering behind him like a spaceship, its flickering red mouth and digital dial clicking up to 868 degrees and ready to launch its heat-blistered crusts, it's no wonder many local foodies have already lauded Zavino as a new champ in the pursuit of artisan pies.

With its cafe windows open to the spring breeze and electric street life at 13th and Sansom, and every odd dining-room nook and stool at the sweeping marble bar crammed full, I see how Zavino brings to mind a sort of bopping, indie version of Stephen Starr's Stella.

I love the casual and youthful vibe of this corner space, too, with its affordable prices, bluesy soundtrack, and antipasti station near the front turning out platters laden with sheer slices of prosciutto and fat-speckled Baby Jesus salami, artisan cheese, and mozzarella glistening with olive oil. There are other unique items from the ever-changing list of nightly specials, which I'll get to in a moment, that are worth the trip alone.

And yet, in many ways, Zavino still feels like a rough sketch. The wine list is small and esoteric, built around odd grapes and small producers that were at times intriguing (Bobolia Bobal) but also skunky ("Deja" passerina). Stick with a Rhône rosé for warm-weather, pizza-friendly pleasure.

The space is warm but slightly off, seemingly designed around that convivial bar, the rest of the dining room an afterthought. It's deafeningly noisy and uncomfortable, with tables too close together by the window and a misshapen corner booth wedged behind a pillar that left a crick in my back.

Of course, quirky is fine when the prices are this low (from $9 to $14 per pie) and the pizzas are top-notch. And Gonzalez's pizzas are good enough to praise – tender, char-bubbled rounds topped with everything from tender veal meatballs to goat cheese and velvety Lancaster spinach.

But I'm not on the Zavino-as-Pizza-King bandwagon quite yet. In my ever-evolving scale of micro-ratings between the "good" and the "great," Zavino's pies are still not quite on par with those at Stella or Osteria. They have a pliantly soft Neapolitan-style puff that could benefit from a hint more crusty snap. The array of toppings, while built on such quality elements as Claudio's mozzarella and Kennett Square mushrooms, is limited and predictable. The bright Stanislaus tomato sauce is milled a bit too chunky for my tastes, then ladled on too thick.

The mushroom pie with béchamel was surprisingly bland. The minimalist "Rosa" was overwhelmed by too many singed leaves of whole oregano. The "polpettini" pizza was easily Zavino's best, with soft veal meatballs rolling amid molten clouds of fresh mozzarella in a zesty variation on the basil-topped Margherita (which was also great). The homemade sausage pie with roasted fennel was also decent. And though the spinach pie was awkward to eat, with wilted leaves slipping off in clumps with every bite, it actually grew on me. The layers of spinach eventually melted into a bottom smear of goat cheese that resembled a decadent, velvety green souffle.

Surely these pies are better than 98 percent of the competition, and I'm parsing picayune pizza points here. But I also know that a chef with Gonzalez's talent can reach an entirely higher pizzaiolo plane. This is not simply because of an intriguing resumé that brought the Southwest Philly native through stints at Vetri, Brasserie Perrier, and restaurants in Spain and Italy as well as New York, where he worked for Marco Canora at Insieme and Jim Lahey's Chelsea pizza hit called Co.

I say this because the pizzas aren't even nearly the best things to eat at Zavino. They were the draw that allowed Gonzalez to attract investors who know pizza generates more than one kind of dough, with bottom-line profits that are crispy, to say the least.

Gonzalez's initial concept was a more formal Italian menu with a farm-to-table bent, and pizzas as a secondary theme. And judging by some of the fantastic nightly specials here, his first instincts might have been best.

A night of grazing off the chalkboard specials recently brought a parade of affordable plates spotlighting such fleeting seasonal flavors as sweet roasted parsnips over smoky romesco sauce and pristine black bass crudo scattered with deep-purple blood orange segments and fennel fronds. There was tender octopus with celery and piquant green olives. A mix of root veggies and frisée ("roots and greens") came in bagna cauda, an anchovy sauce like a primal, more pungent Caesar. Another night brought roasted beets in orange vinaigrette in a creamy smear of goat cheese topped with crunchy pistachios.

A delivery of snappy Lancaster pea greens inspired what may be the single best risotto I've eaten in this city, a crock of porcini-infused rice with just the right creamy flow and depth of mushroom flavor laying an earthy backdrop for the snappy bright greens. Another dish paired the fresh pop of whole peas with a soulful lamb ragu ladled over deeply grooved, hand-rolled cavatelli.

Fava beans and finely slivered ramps lent a fresh breath of spring to numerous plates, including a most unusual ravioli stuffed with a creamy mash of salt cod, then topped with the beans, mint, and shaved ricotta salata. My favorite ravioli, though, came from the trimmings of a whole pig Gonzalez had butchered down for sausage, ragu, and prosciutto cotto: pig's head ravioli. Soft yet deliciously porky inside, it was glazed in buttery herb sauce sparked with walnuts and grain mustard.

I only wish some of that pig had made it onto my antipasto plate instead of the perfectly fine yet imported meats that lent the salumi selection an unexpected ho-hum tone – considering the charcuterie station's place of honor near the front door. Or how about a house-cured delicacy to lend Zavino's pizzas some topping distinction?

Gonzalez has promised more of that (plus an improved wine list) if only he can find a little extra curing space. I'll happily be at Zavino for that, hungry and waiting.


Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Amis. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com.

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