Firmly rooted in European-style white- tablecloth dining, personal prep is showing up in family-owned trattorias and even chain restaurants like P.F. Chang's, where servers mix chili, mustard and vinegar sauces tableside to the guest's specifications. There are no hard numbers on the trend, but it goes with the dining public's fascination with all things food, from celebrity-chef shows on TV to grocery-store cooking demonstrations.
This kind of personal attention appeals on many levels, noted Roberta Adamo, executive chef at Penne Restaurant, in University City. "I think guests like the idea of seeing exactly what they're going to eat, prepared right in front of them," said Adamo, whose eight-seat pasta bar is always booked. There, at lunch and dinner, guests can watch Adamo create everything from fava gnocchi to carrot cavatelli. The ever-smiling chef, who also offers private pasta-making classes at the bar, chats with guests as she works, adding intimacy to the experience.
With a dish like pesce al cartoccio, or fish in parchment, which she often runs as a special, guests breathe in the tantalizing aroma of fresh herbs and citrus as the crisp parchment is cut open, an appetizing tease as the fish is filleted and plated.
At Cafe Roberto, a sunny trattoria at 21st and South, brothers Fernando and Roberto Vincenti are expert at deboning and presenting simply grilled and seasoned fresh fish, from Dover sole to pompano and black bass.
"Our customers know we do everything fresh, but they love to see it in front of their eyes," said Fernando. Although the menu includes a range of tasty pasta and meat dishes, the tableside fish is always a hit.
Then there's the "I want what she's having" factor. "People see it, and then they want to order it, too," said Vincenti. "Everyone likes to watch."
Across town in Northern Liberties, service is delivered with more than just a smile at Apollinare in the Piazza, on 2nd Street. Maitre'd Alessandro Lascaro, whose style is an appealing balance between European white glove technique and easygoing banter, efficiently reduces fillets of gorgeous marinated Scottish salmon to a toothsome tartare appetizer.
And that's just for starters.
Tuna and beef tartare, salt-baked branzino, chateaubriand for two and even an impressive ice-cream dessert are all in his table-side repertoire.
"We try to do something different for our clients," explained Fabio Auguadro, who co-owns the restaurant with partner Andrea Scotacci, a friend he grew up with in Spoleto, Italy. Named for its sister restaurant in the pair's medieval hometown, Apollinare reflects the refined dishes of regional Umbrian cuisine, from homemade spelt pasta ribbons and cauliflower tortelli to braised wild boar.
"You start to eat with your eyes before your mouth," said Auguadro, who is also an importer of Italian gourmet specialties. "Fresher than this, you cannot have. Coming to Apollinare isn't just about filling up your stomach and drinking wine. We give the client an experience."
"In Italy, our waiters are professionals who take pride in their work," he continued. "They aren't guys in university making extra money on the side. Our servers must be able to explain, handle demanding clientele, understand all ingredients and wine."
While all the dishes Lascaro prepares are impressive, dessert is downright amazing. First, a homemade vanilla base is presented in a chilled copper bowl. Then, with quite the sci-fi flourish, the maitre'd pours liquid nitrogen over the top, whisking away as the mixture literally freezes into ice cream before diners' eyes.
"This is the kind of thing the new generation of chefs in Italy are working with," said Auguadro, whose goal is to espouse true contemporary Italian cookery to his guests.
While a dish like high-tech ice cream is a sexy take on a typical dessert, the foundation of tableside cooking is in the classics. Professional maitre'd Maximo Baez Berg learned his tableside technique while working at the Waldorf Astoria, in New York, more than 30 years ago.
Berg, who has served locally at restaurants including La Veranda, Estia and Frederick's, also offers in-home catering for intimate dinners and larger parties. Wearing his catering hat as Chef Max@Home, Berg can create a tableside menu from appetizer to flaming dessert.
"People sometimes get a little tired just sitting and waiting," he said. "And they love to know everything they are eating is really fresh."
One of his flashiest moves involves lighting a liquor-soaked coil of clove-studded orange peel for a flaming coffee. The cloves give off little sparks, creating a light show to end any meal on an impressive note.
Berg makes it look easy, exchanging easy conversation with his clients while whipping up a Caesar salad, cutting into an herb-crusted rack of lamb or flambeing fruit for the New Orleans trademark dessert, bananas Foster. But that kind of deft multitasking takes years of practice.
"It's hard to find staff who are capable of doing fine tableside," said Patrick Byrne, proprietor at the General Wayne Inn, in Mal-
vern. "Some people can't get the rhythm, especially because orders tend to come in waves. One table sees a flambe next door, and they want it, too."
Although tableside wasn't a focus on Mother's Day - "lots of kids around, the last thing we needed was sharp knives and flames" - Byrne's usual clientele would riot if he took the chateaubriand, steak au poivre or Caesar salad off the menu.
"We're always trying to walk the tightrope between offering contemporary items and keeping our core loyalists happy with the classics," he said. "And they just love tableside. It's part of the show."
It's also a throwback to what Byrne sees as a true fine-dining experience. "Everybody is in a rush, checking their BlackBerry, or as I call it, crackberry, during dinner. There's a lack of civility in dining which I really miss. With a tableside dish, the guests have to take a break and watch the action. It gives them an excuse to really enjoy the moment."