Thursday, August 26, 2010

Tacconelli's Pizzeria and Modo Mio, Philadelphia PA

Dinner on the second day of my visit to Philadelphia would see me doing something quite uncharacteristic – deferring to the tastes of another – and a stranger at that. A man familiar to the ranks of Chowhound and (as it turns out) more fine dining Meccas than anyone I know – delucacheesemonger – had offered to meet up with me for a meal…or two. Volunteering his car, his company, his intelligence, and (most importantly) his wit the decision was made to visit two spots on his recommendation – Tacconelli’s Pizzeria and Modo Mio. For the sake of full disclosure I will note that Mr. cheesemonger was a well known entity to both restaurants and as such the service may have been skewed in our favor…but from the looks of things I’m rather certain both restaurants treat everyone like a VIP.

With reservations (mandatory at both stops, one to reserve the dough and the other for a seat) made by my companion for 6 and 8 I arrived early – as always – and Mr. cheesemonger welcomed me as though we’d known each other for ages. Chatting about food, life, medicine, travel, and any number of other topics time passed quickly and we made our way to the car for the short drive to Somerset Street - home of what many call one of America’s 10 best Pizzas.
Arriving moments before our reservation time I was honestly surprised at the unassuming nature of the location – small, homey, wooden booths, false hardwood floors, paper plates, Styrofoam cups – what wasn’t surprising was the warm welcome…Tacconelli’s is a place where everyone is treated like a regular and all the regulars are treated like best friends. A one man, one oven operation utilizing recipes and an oven dating back to World War II Tacconelli’s keeps it simple – patrons must call in advance to reserve dough and that dough is utilized to make one size of pizza with a limited number of toppings. Payment is cash only, hours are ~4pm to ~9pm 5 days a week, and alcohol is BYO. 1/2 and 1/2 pizzas are allowed – mix n’ match as you like. Seated we were poured water and given menus – the cheesemonger knew what he wanted on his half and after a moment I knew what I wanted on mine.
Seated and chatting time went quickly – but even so it was hard not to be jealous of each and every sublime looking pie coming from the kitchen…Tacconelli’s should sell tickets just to smell the tomato and garlic laden air. Approximately 40 minutes after entering Tacconelli’s our pie would arrive – one half “White” with salt, black pepper, cheese, garlic, whole tomatoes, and spinach and the other a “Regular” pie with cheese, sauce, and prosciutto. Featuring a cracker crunchy semolina base with just a bit of char the crust was flawless – not bubbly or chewy, but not “too hard” either – just flawless. The cheesemonger made an interesting analogy I’ll not repeat, but it will stick in my mind on how to judge a crust from here on out.
Folding a piece and taking a bite I was wowed by the sweetness of the sauce and the mild saltiness of the pork – neither were overwhelming, both shined as though they were born to go together. Devouring a second piece I managed to burn the roof of my mouth – a small price to pay. Graciously offering up a slice (and then a second) of the other half I have to admit that as good as the sauce was and as much as I fancy my ability to order, my companion’s experience paid off – the “white” pie was even better than mine. Amply garlic laden but tempered elegantly by the fresh tomatoes and creamy mozzarella the fusion of ingredients was simplicity at its best – a magnificent pie that undoubtedly constitutes the best non-designer pizza I’ve ever tasted.
Settling the modest tab (after learning the rules of liar’s poker) and being bid farewell by our server I felt like I was just hitting stride for a night full of fantastic dining. Rustic and low key Tacconelli’s is one of those hidden gems that a tourist without a car could never get to – a loss for them, but good news for the locals – keep it a secret, else face the issues now surrounding Great Lake in Chicago.
Making our way to the car our next stop would be Modo Mio – with the cheesemonger telling me of his myriad previous experiences at the restaurant I rather expected a warm welcome, but what we got when we arrived was more than I’d have ever guessed – servers stopping by to say hello while we waited for a table, the hostess stopping for small talk…and their warmness extended past my companion to myself – even before the meal Modo Mio felt like a family gathering. Telling the cheesemonger that they had a special surprise for him “fresh from the market” we waited only moments before being led to our table at the center of the bustling dining room.
A small space with an impossibly small kitchen for the impressive menu size, Chef/Owner Peter McAndrews’ restaurant definitely delivers on their website promise of “we hope that you will visit and indulge your passion for food and friendship. We are intimate and loud at times, but we have a great time!” Energetic but not deafening, low-lit but not cliché “dark-romantic,” tight but not cramped, and plain but not boring…the feel was like Babbo but less loud or Vetri but less formal. Before getting deep into the review I will note that the small space did have a couple drawbacks – the first being nearly elbow to elbow with your fellow diners…the second, well, we’ll get to that later.
Re-greeted by our server (we talked outside before seating) two small bites and one large one would arrive even before the menus – amongst the amuses would be two bruschetta – one a grilled rustic bread with snails, aged provolone, lemon caper butter and the other with crispy pulled goat, black cherries, and aged balsamic. Featuring subtle and crispy bread brushed with olive oil and lightly charred I personally loved both options – the briny snails tempered by the sharp provolone and lemon caper butter while the gamey goat was brought to a peak by the combination of sweet cherry and sharp balsamic vinegar.
The second dish to arrive would be a complimentary surprise for the cheesemonger. A fan of tripe, and particularly Modo Mio’s previous menu version, he had apparently noted that on his previous visit their version was a tad pedestrian and as such this time the chef had gone out of his way to make amends. Served in a large bowl and easily big enough for 2 (and as it turned out a 3rd,) Lamb Tripe and cabbage stew with parsley, olive oil, basil plus grilled Tellagio bread was my first experience with Lamb Tripe, but ideally not my last. Flawlessly cooked the offal was minimally gamey and mildly pork-like in flavor. Cut into thin strips the preparation was raw and rustic with the flavors reminding me of my Grandmother’s Hungarian Style Stuffed Cabbage. With my companion appropriately impressed but already starting to feel full we offered a sample of the dish to our neighbors and they graciously accepted. When the biggest complaint about a dish is that it is “too much good food” and “now I have to come up with a different antipasti to try” that is saying something.
With menus finally delivered, along with a house made crusty salted semolina bread served with a clean yet grassy olive oil and a dollop of fresh Ricotta, I was stunned by the variety of selections and the $33 for four courses menu turista. Settling quickly on an antipasti and pasta I asked my server which secondi he recommended and given his lack of hesitation I went with his suggestion. Already getting somewhat full the cheesemonger went with 2 antipasti, no pasta, and a secondi…it would still prove to be too much food; luckily he was dining with a great cleanup man.
Before getting into the meal I will note that the service was resoundingly friendly, efficient, and informative – not just to our table, but to everyone around us. Speaking fondly of a recent visit to Italy and how it influenced the menu there was a passion in everyone’s voice – from the kitchen to the servers the staff itself seemed the closest knit I’ve seen outside of (perhaps) Alinea. I will also note here a rather serious service gaff that occurred when the bread lady stumbled while carrying ~10 plates of olive oil and ricotta across the restaurant – one of those plates ended up on my back with the viscous fluid rolling down my spine and soaking my shirt while staining my pants. Exceptionally apologetic and offering everything from a free meal to overnight dry cleaning to hints on how to get the stain out myself I was shocked by the degree of attention and stated I’d gladly take care of it myself – really, it was the apology that made all the difference…especially after “the Spiaggia incident,” and really, with as good as the rest of the meal would prove to be for such a bargain basement price I’d have been embarrassed to let them comp the bill; mistakes happen and the rest of the service was absolutely exemplary.
Beginning the meal proper would be my “Polpo” with grilled octopus, spicy chickpeas, raisins, almonds, lemon, arugula. A salad in presentation but with warm grilled octopus setting the temperature somewhere around that of the room this would be the first many agrodolce presentations from Chef McAndrews. A hearty balance of crunchy and smooth, spicy and acidic, sweet and sour there were no wasted elements and the balance was quite impressive. At 1/2 the price of Amada’s Octopus there was more here and it was vastly superior in taste and texture.
The cheesemonger’s first course would’ve been my choice had he not ordered it. Entitled “Crocante” with prosciutto wrapped chicken livers, cherries, gorgonzola, and sweet red wine reduction this dish was perhaps my favorite of the evening. Lightly fried pancetta encompassing mild chicken liver was served over warm artichokes and chopped cherries tossed with a creamy gorgonzola. Topping the whole amalgam with a thick and aromatic red wine reduction and spices lent an almost haute-Marsala flavor to the whole dish – it was beautiful.
Waiting a short while and chatting about my new friend’s significant foreign travel I was again impressed by how well I could hear and be heard without yelling – unlike Scarpetta and Babbo I think the lack of music definitely helps. Arriving shortly would be my pasta and his second antipasti…and as it turns out I’d end up eating most of both dishes as he was already starting to get full. Beginning first with my “must order” dish at any Italian restaurant, gnocchi, Modo Mio’s option featured classic ricotta dumplings topped with crab, plum tomatoes, capers, and cream. Topped nicely with sweet crab and sweeter tomatoes in a surprisingly lightly brined sauce the gnocchi themselves were unfortunately not terrible memorable. Dense and flavorful, but not the light dumplings I’ve come to expect.
Faring better amongst the second courses would be “Lingue” with braised calf's tongue, pizziola, portabello, plum tomato, and capers. Inspired by the Italy trip our server stated that the concept here was to “introduce” diners to tongue by creating a pizza-esque flavor without the dough. Delicate and thinly shaved the protein was surprisingly light while it was actually the mushrooms that lent heft to the dish. With ample notes of basil, tomato, olive, caper, and cheese I can say their attempt to replicate a pizza flavor was spot on and I enjoyed the dish much more than I had expected.
Completely stuffed my cohort stated he would only have “a bite” of the main courses – had I known that I would have just had him order the two I was trying to decide between. True to his word when his Braised Lamb Shank with Rosemary, Lemon, Vin Cotto arrived he took a bite, smiled and said “wonderful” before pushing it my way. Fatty and succulent the lamb literally fell off the bone and melted in the mouth - simply paired with gentle spices and lemon the agrodolce preparation was plated atop heated red wine and worked just like the lamb tripe…warm, rustic, hearty, and wonderful.
My secondi selection (trumping the duck on our server’s suggestion) would be “Animelle” with veal sweetbreads, artichoke, pancetta, lemon, and thyme. Bearing in mind the fact that I’d already eaten substantially during the day and was now eating for two I was lucky this was so good – it was worth being “stuffed” for. Ample in portion, crispy on the surface and creamy within the offal was paired inspiringly with crispy artichokes – similar in texture yet vegetal in composition. Topped with chopped pancetta and a lightly lemon accented olive oil the entire plate came together nicely and ranks amongst my favorite dishes in Philadelphia – an assessment that Phillymag also seems to agree with.
Moving towards dessert our server again appeared to tell us the specials – with both of us quite full but dessert included in the menu turista we listened and ordered…only to have the server provide us a third dessert that the kitchen was especially proud of on the house. Ever giving and pleasant we were also offered shots of Sambuca (a first for me) and a glass each of Il Poggione Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 1999 – warm, pleasant, and floral even to my naïve nose.
Starting first with the cheesemonger’s dessert option – a simple and rustic spiced pear tart with Almond Ice Cream. A free form galette with a buttery crust and high notes of cinnamon, brown sugar, and clove accenting the sweet pears - lovely, light, and complimented nicely by the aromatic ice cream.
My option would be the Chocolate Budino with hand whipped cream and strawberries. Somewhat drier than a traditional Budino the overall texture of the dish was actually somewhere between a pudding and a soufflé. Light and small like the tart the budino was a nice end to the meal, though not extremely memorable.
Our third dessert and the last taste of the evening would be Gorgonzola Panna Cotta, White Figs, Honey – it would also be (by far) the best dessert of the night. Like a composed cheese plate arranged into a stunning cheesecake the panna cotta would prove to be impossibly light despite its hefty cheese notes while the pungency and bite of the aged cheese was tempered beautifully by the lavender accented honey and sweet poached figs.
Bordering on a genuine food coma at this point we were asked if there is anything else we’d like and while I’m sure I would have liked to try almost everything on the menu we decided to take a rain check. Settling the tab – a mere $45/pp with a hefty tip – we bid farewell to the staff and I again received apology from the servers for the spill who offered to have me back the following evening at no charge. Thanking them again but declining the offer we made our way to the street and (thankfully) my friend volunteered to drive me back to my B&B.
Looking back on my visit to (and receipts from) Philadelphia Modo Mio would invariably be my cheapest lunch or dinner – less than 1/2 the price of Le Bec Fin and less than 1/3 the price of Vetri…it was also cheaper than recent Italian jaunts in New York, Las Angeles, and Columbus. While not every plate was spot on, the dishes that did excel did so to an incredible degree and not a single flavor fell short of at least being good. Speaking with fellow diners (and waiters) at Zahav, Vetri, Supper, and Le Bec Fin I can’t say I was surprised by the fondness with which people speak of Modo Mio – it truly is a special place that I was lucky to enjoy with a fantastic fellow gourmand.

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