I’ll admit I spoiled the surprise – I saw Capogiro gelato at a small shop in Pittsburgh back in June and had to order it during my visit. Fresh, creamy, intense, and intriguing in both sourcing and flavors I said at that time that it was the best gelato I’d ever had outside of the Batali Empire. Making my first trip in twelve years to Philadelphia, home of four Capogiro stores I knew I’d have to make the trek at least once – and after a long day of wandering the city in the heat I decided to stop in for a look, some tastes, and perhaps a small cup.
Without going into extensive detail about the quality of sourcing and dedication to quality (really, they make everything in store each day so the options at one store may differ from the other less than 2 miles away) I will note that I totally abused the tasting privilege and enjoyed well over 10 samples prior to settling on the order I knew I was bound to place walking in the door. Peach, Blueberry, Bananas Foster, Marshmallow, Pistachio Siciliano, Dulce de Leche, Crème Fraîche, Malted Chocolate, and English Sea Salt all greeted the tongue a blend of sweet and salty, creamy and delicate – all could have justified blowing off dinner and ordering cup after cup. Paying the $4.78 for a small I made my way to the street to indulge.
Half Cioccolato Scuro and half Nutella, first sampled solo and then swirled into a delectable amalgam – perfection defined. Eating dinner later with a fellow gourmand he stated he didn’t really like Capogiro because the texture reminded him more of pudding than gelato – interestingly that was exactly what I loved…but I wouldn’t say pudding, more an airy mousse or whipped cream, but ice cold. It is with much regret that I didn’t return to Capogiro for more tastes prior to my departure, but as per all my travels the goal is variety of locations as much as variety of flavors…besides, there is always next time.
Moving onward and visiting the entirety of Independence National Historic Park and the Poe House over the next few hours I slowly progressed towards the site of dinner – a 7:00pm reservation for eight at Jose Garces’ flagship Amada for the whole roast suckling pig. An Iron Chef Winner, Beard Award Winner, Cookbook Author, and self proclaimed “master of Latin cuisine,” the “Latin Emeril” really needs no introduction. After gaining his footing in the Starr empire the Chicago native has quickly risen through the culinary ranks beginning first with Amada in 2005 and subsequently opening four more restaurants in Philadelphia, one in Chicago, and a new “Trading Company” that I’d visit later during my trip. Given his notoriety and the fact that eight of us would be meeting for the pig I will fully admit the bar was set high for this meal.
Proposed by myself and organized, mostly, by a Philly local we were scheduled for the whole Roast Pig with the suggestion of additional Tapas while our pig was prepared per the restaurant and as is my custom I arrived 30 minutes early to find two members of the party at already at the bar. Ordering a delightful “Tinto” Sangria consisting of Spiced Red Wine, Orange, Apple, and Cinnamon we sat and chatted until the others filtered in – Ironically it would be the person who set up the party who would arrive last – nearly 15 minutes late.
When all party members were accounted for we were led to a large table on a platform in the middle of the main dining room – raised approximately a foot above the rest of the tables and featuring backless benches that were hard as a rock I’ll note that the combination was somewhat uncomfortable – both the seats and the stares. While not “barstools at Momofuku Ko” uncomfortable, it was close, and the noise level was equally loud. Browsing around the restaurant it is obvious that Amada is the sort of place to go in order to be seen, but overall it did not feel contrived, just busy. Were I to return I’d have personally requested a seat closer to the open kitchen so that I could watch the chefs at work.
Greeted quickly by our server we were told it would take some time for the pig to be finished in the oven and he suggested we order some Tapas to pass the time. Helpful and courteous albeit overworked as he appeared to be covering at least 8 tables he explained portion sizes and suggested that each tapas plate would offer a taste for approximately four people. After some discussion the table opted for two orders of four different tapas so each of us could get a taste. With plates rolling out rather quickly from the kitchen we received items rather quickly at first and then waited nearly 45 minutes before the pig would arrive. While some members of our party were bitter and stewing about this delay, I personally did not understand the gripe as it allowed time to digest and chat – water remained full and our waiter checked in on us with status updates at least thrice during that time.
Beginning the meal proper would be Amada’s “house bread,” a Crispy Flatbread with Tuna and Caper spread. Tasty and light with plenty of flavor I was happy they opted against serving a puffy and filling bread like many tapas restaurants do in order to fill the guest up – as it turns out we were to get PLENTY of food, anyhow.
For our tapas, the first option was not something I’d have ordered if left to my own devices, but offal is in and the nightly special was Blood Sausage. Substantially salty and chunky compared to my previous experience with blood sausage this was the sort of dish where a little went a very long way. Drizzled with honey to temper the salinity the small portion size seemed somewhat expensive for the quality, but honestly I can’t imagine being able to eat much more than the small portion I was allotted. In the future I’ll stick to the creamy consistency of French Boudin Noir over the Spanish Morcilla.
Our second tapas selection would be PULPO A LA GALLEGA – Spanish Octopus. Served on a wooden round the grilled octopus was nicely salted and accented with Paprika, Cumin, and Garlic and paired with thinly sliced fingerling potatoes that added a crispy contrast to the smooth and chewy cephalopod. Pricey given the high carb to protein ratio I think we each got two small bites of octopi and those bites were good, but nothing transcendent.
Dish three would be an item I’d targeted before even making reservations and it would turn out to be the best small plate in terms of quality, uniqueness, and price per bite; MADRE E HIJO - Chicken Breast with Fried Egg, Mojama & Truffles. Expecting fantastic things given my experience with Batali’s similar dish at Casa Mono (with Duck egg, sans chicken) I must say I was a bit let down. While the egg was appropriately creamy and the aromatics of the truffle quite profound, the minimal shaving of grated Mojama was utterly imperceptible over the savory chicken. A good dish to be sure, but not as good as I’d hoped.
Dish four was a flop despite being highly touted by one of my dining partners. ALMEJAS CON CHORIZO - Clams & Chorizo would pair infinitesimal clams with thin slices of spicy pork in a thin broth of onions, chives, garlic, and what I believe tasted of nutmeg. Flavorless and small the edible portion of the clams lent little to the dish and while the broth was decent (and appropriately served with bread to soak up the juices) the chorizo was largely overpowered by the spices. For me, the highlight of the dish was actually the broth on the bread – though I tried not to eat too much for fear of filling up.
After the last of our tapas arrived there was a wait as previously noted. While some members of our party felt this entirely inappropriate (to the point where someone demanded to speak to the manager) I will note that it was explained and we were not abandoned – the server checked in regularly to be sure drinks were filled and plates were cleared. After the delay we saw the pig emerge from the oven and moments later it was wheeled tableside where it would be deftly carved by one of the chefs who stated he’d performed the deed over 500 times. Starting with the standard cuts we were asked if we wanted more exotic pieces such as ears, snout, cheeks, and tail and stating we did indeed want these things the carving commenced. As the sides were arriving simultaneous with the pig carving I will admit I looked away multiple times and never saw where the exotic cuts were placed – this would again be a sore subject at our table as some members seemed to feel others were hoarding the unique items, but honestly I’m pretty sure everything was just mixed in – I know I had one cheek and some ribs, but I never did see snout, trotter, or tail.
With the COCHINILLO ASADO dispersed amongst four large plates we each forked ample portions onto our plates and dug in. Intensely porky and wonderfully salted I can definitely say the pig was worth the visit, the wait, and the expense…much more so than any of the tapas. Impossibly crisp skin pre-brined and roasted to perfection the key was to match skin with muscle in order to balance salinity and get a balanced bite. Focusing larger on the leaner cuts, particularly the loin, as well as the ribs I will note I ate a lot of the pork and despite my propensity for multi-course meals I found the pig intriguing in the way each bite provided a novel experience, my only wish would be that the cuts would have been separated better on the board so that I knew what I was eating in order to take mental notes.
In discussing the sides I will note that the Herb Roasted Fingerlings were rather standard potatoes – well cooked, somewhat salty and well spiced – I ate a few but really felt no need to fill up on starch. Similarly the GARBANZOS CON ESPINACAS - Chickpeas & Spinach were rather uninspiring aside from the slightly overcooked layer on top – crispy like a corn-nut and nicely balanced with tomato, spinach, and a hefty shake of paprika.
More impressive amongst the side dishes were the Rosemary White Beans – creamy and well cooked with ample notes of parsley, rosemary, and butter and the incredible CALÇOTS CON SALBITXADA - Grilled Green Onions which were seared to a char and served with chili pepper spiked garlic butter. Receiving only one plate of the onions I actually requested a second which I consumed almost entirely on my own as the rest of the table was getting full.
Watching others slow their eating I continued to pick at the pork, onions, and crispy chick peas for a while chatting with those seated closest to me about their jobs, families, and the city of Philadelphia. It was around this time that I suddenly realized other members of the table were getting testy. Perhaps it was the long drive, perhaps the long wait, or perhaps something else but regardless there was at first a scowl, then audible complaints about the service. Finished with the pork our server arrived to clear plates and to pack up the leftovers – a good 4lbs of pork and at least 4 cups of garbanzo beans. Returning to the table with the leftover protein packed in only two boxes this was another source of controversy and complaint even though I volunteered to talk to the server about getting things repacked – it was at this point that someone decided to invoke the manager.
With the manager present and grievances apparently aired we were asked if we wanted dessert or coffee and the most vocal member of the table opted to speak for us all and say no until I piped up and suggested we could at least take a look at the menu. With menus delivered and leftovers taken to the kitchen for re-boxing (4 people wanted to take some home, including, oddly, the people who seemed least pleased with the meal) a few ordered coffee (GTC Reserva, currently on brew in my home) and cappuccino while myself and another diner opted to split a dessert, the delectable PASTEL CON ESCABECHE - Warm Brown Butter Cake, Peach Escabeche, and Almond Ice Cream. Served as a dense cylinder with ample notes of cinnamon and butter the cake paired quite nicely with the sautéed peaches and fragrant ice cream.
Arriving with the check would be a second dessert, two small almond cookies that tasted somewhat akin to a fortune cookie – light, whimsical, and a nice touch. Splitting the bill evenly (with 20% tip already included) the total came out to approximately $70 per diner, a deal given the amount of food and duration of the meal, even if not the highest quality of comfortable seating. Bidding each other farewell some people disappeared quite quickly while others hung around to chat out front or to visit the restroom. With two of my fellow diners offering a ride back to my B&B I graciously accepted and decided to leave after 5 minutes of waiting for the hostess to get me a copy of the menu…that would be my only service complaint of the evening.
When it was all said and done I have to admit I was left with mixed feelings about Amada and the experience. While the pork was excellent and every bit worth the price, the failure to present the exotic cuts separately led to a lot of confusion and complaint…that and the grumbles about service left a bad taste in my mouth. Additionally, the tapas were good but not great while the seating and noise level were rather unwelcoming. All in all I’m definitely glad to have visited Amada and I certainly understand the appeal, but I can’t say it is a place I’d rush back to, especially given the quality of the Philadelphia dining scene.