When we talk about Italian restaurants, you can safely bet that the words “traditional” or “authentic” will be part of the conversation. Our main benchmark of evaluating Italian cuisine seems to be whether the food meets some standard of Traditional or Authentic. It often feels as though Italian cooking in the U.S. has bypassed most of the trendy, postmodern culinary movements, such as fusion, molecular gastronomy and the whole sustainable, local-foraging fetish. That has probably been a blessing, but it has also limited our definition of what an Italian restaurant can be. I’ve been thinking about all this after visits to Alla Spina and Ulivo.
One of my favorite BYOs to open last fall, Ulivo in Queen Village, is a prototypical example of this modest, authentic approach to Italian cooking. I ate at Ulivo several times this winter, and although I’m not going to say it’s the finest restaurant in the world, it was wonderfully satisfying.
Ulivo is owned by Joe Scarpone, whose gone-but-not-forgotten Sovalo in Northern Liberties was one of the finest Italian restaurants in the city. Four years after Sovalo was shuttered, Scarpone is forthcoming about his decided lack of aspirations with Ulivo.
“Sovalo was a special-event, fancy place,” Scarpone said. “Now I want a place that feels comfortable, inviting. I think the world has changed.”
Though it is a warm, pretty space, Ulivo is really just a neighborhood spot, with an extremely limited menu of five pastas, five mains and a handful of starters. Perhaps his best dishes are simplest and — here’s that word again — traditional, such as a well-executed spaghetti alla carbonara, with guanciale, or a surprisingly flavorful and tangy chicken with mushroom-and-green-olive fregola.
The ricotta gnocchi with spinach and truffle butter and the tonnarelli with hedgehog mushrooms, butternut squash and ricotta salata were both the sort of dishes I could see ordering once a week, along with Scarpone’s fried polenta. On one visit, my companion and I ordered salads and pastas, and the bill came to a very affordable $49, paired with our own $25 nebbiolo.
Yet as much I like Ulivo and admire the decided lack of capital-A ambition, my earlier questions still nagged at me. I was still looking for something new.
Then Marc Vetri’s Alla Spina opened last month, and I think we suddenly have an Italian place that transcends any standard of traditional or authenticity.
From trad to rad
First of all, Alla Spina (which means “on tap”) is an Italian bar and restaurant that specializes in beer, not wine. There are only three wines on the menu, and two of them are poured from a tap (including an excellent nebbiolo). Second, Alla Spina, with its graffitied wall and whimsical sculpture of a pig in leg warmers, looks like no other Italian place in the city.
But beyond the drinks and decor, the menu mingles Italian specialties with other foodstuffs in a way you rarely see. How many fancy Italian places put a hot dog (made here of mortadella) or a hoagie (made with veal breast) or French Canadian poutine (french fries topped here with Italian-inflected guinea hen Bolognese and mozzarella curd) alongside the traditional lasagna? How many authentic spots serve deviled eggs (here with porcini mushrooms) or pig pot pie or housemade pretzels?
Perhaps even more extraordinary are the fried pig tails and the whole roasted pork shoulder and pig’s head, both of which serve four.
“It’s a mix between comfort bar food and wacky, kinda out-there stuff and traditional Italian stuff,” said Damon Menapace, Alla Spina’s chef de cuisine. (Perhaps it goes without saying, but it should be noted that Alla Spina’s uniqueness comes at a significantly higher price point than a traditional place like Ulivo.)
For me, the main protagonist on Alla Spina’s menu is the daily crudo special on the blackboard — usually a raw fish like Spanish mackerel tossed with Meyer lemon, parsley and seat salt, or a carpaccio of rib-eye with Parmesan and sherry vinegar. Crudo, which simply means “raw” in Italian, is often called “Italian sushi,” but it’s more like ceviche, brightened by citrus and seasoned with herbs and salt.
Though crudo is nothing particularly new — places such as Positano Coast and Fish already do it really well — it’s not found as widely in Philadelphia as I’d imagine. This has always surprised me. It’s always seemed like “Italian sushi” would be a sure hit.
It’s Italian for beer
When Alla Spina opened, Menapace was unsure if the nontraditional fare would be popular. “I thought at first we’d draw foodies and bar geeks, but we’re getting a lot of different people from all walks of life,” he said.
While the foodies have come for the pig and the crudo, the bar geeks have arrived in droves for Italian craft beer. I mean, you’ve certainly seen a Peroni — Italy’s answer to Budweiser — in South Philly once in a while, but craft beer from Italy?
Actually, for about a decade now, brewers such as Baladin, Menabrea, Del Ducato and Bruton have spurred a craft-beer trend in Italy among young foodies. “We’d heard rumblings of it through the wine guys, but about four or five years ago was the first time I saw an Italian craft beer in Philly,” said Steve Wildy, Vetri’s beverage director.
Italian craft brewers experiment in as many styles as their American counterparts, but with their own twists, such as the Piccolo saison on tap, which has been aged in chardonnay barrels, or L’Olmaia, brewed with hibiscus and spices. My favorite was the Birrificio Montegioco Tibir, brewed with the obscure Piemontese wine grape, Timorasso. Italian beers are generally more food-friendly and lower in alcohol than many American craft beers.
“Italian beers are markedly different,” Wildy said. “There’s a lot of wacky ingredients, and a lot of renegade brewing techniques. They’re doing interesting things, and they started without any sense of tradition.”
This refreshing outlook could sum up Alla Spina’s approach as well.
Jason Wilson has twice won an award for Best Newspaper Food Column from the Association of Food Journalists. He is the author of “Boozehound” and editor of “The Smart Set,” an online arts and culture journal at Drexel University. Follow him at twitter.com/boozecolumnist or go to jasonwilson.com.