How much pasta can one little neighborhood eat?
An endless supply, apparently, if you go by the swelling tides of marinara around cozy Fitler Square, the quaint residential pocket beside the Schuylkill where not just one, but three of the most recent additions have been Italian concepts. As my colleague Michael Klein recently pointed out, this rowhouse neighborhood in Center City West has suddenly become an unexpected new Little Italy, with one of the highest concentrations of Italian restaurants in the city. Existing favorites like Res Ipsa, Sotto, and Trattoria Carina were joined this spring by a trio of new options that opened just blocks apart: Cotoletta Fitler Square, Ambrosia BYOB, and the upscale revamp of Mama Palma’s pizzeria into Palma’s Cucina. Count another half-dozen staples if you include Rittenhouse Square nearby.
The boom seems likely coincidental. But it also reflects how completely mainstream Italian flavors have become since the days, more than a century ago, when immigration organically grew one of America’s first and most enduring versions of a Little Italy in South Philadelphia. The genre is now a relatively safe investment in a town where deeply steeped affinities for meatball comfort can easily be leveraged toward more upscale aims. But there’s a risk of redundancy with so many new players in one place. So how do they compare? After a handful of visits to each, I’ve been fascinated by just how different they are.
It’s no easy task to follow a beloved luncheonette that served unpretentious diner comfort to its neighbors for 40 years. The transformation from humble Sandy’s into the stylish open-kitchen space and scratch Italian menu of Ambrosia BYOB is a dramatic shift, but my hungry mind leaps the moment I see one of chef Fredi Loka’s house-spun pastas beckoning from a plate.
A ramp-infused spaghetti topped with steamed littlenecks and lump crab in white wine sauce? Look out for my fork. Fresh ravioli stuffed with minted ricotta in brown butter, scattered with snappy green favas? All mine. The hand-crafted spirit here, which also informs the fresh focaccia with irresistible sun-dried tomato-caper dip, is part of what distinguishes, and slightly elevates, Loka’s kitchen in this group.
With exposed brick, gray walls, and dark wood tables, the 45-seat dining room is handsome enough to be a celebratory night-out destination, the space converted by Loka and his partner, George Profi (of Profi’s Creperie at the Reading Terminal Market). Comfort considerations? Not so much. The room is so noisy we couldn’t hear our server speak. And tables are tight. Diners occasionally need to rise stadium-style to let a neighboring party pass to take their seats.
Loka’s food is clearly the draw. The Albanian-born chef actually learned to cook Italian food in Philly standbys like Branzino, Casta Diva, La Vigna (long closed), and Haddonfield’s Il Villaggio. “I don’t speak Italian, but my kitchen Spanish is pretty good,” he said.
There are moments when this food lacks essential touches or depth of flavors — like the scallop crudo and beef carpaccio that were both underseasoned and dry, an uninspired brown minestrone, and a heavily thickened truffled cream for the tortelloni.
But for the most part, Loka delivered satisfying flavors. He has a deft hand with seafood — like the deeply browned scallops and pork belly over cauliflower puree, or a roasted monkfish sliced over white beans with a light tomato sauce, mussels, and olives. One sure bet is Loka’s braised short rib, served either as a fork-tender hunk over creamy polenta or shredded into a hearty ragù tossed with zipper-edged pappardelle.
What was unexpected were desserts with a homemade touch. My favorite was a creamy panna cotta infused with pistachio that I’m still thinking about. For a corner that succeeded for decades as a destination for comfort cooking, this finale, along with the house-made pastas, give this venerable address fresh reasons to remain a draw. Ambrosia BYOB, 231 S. 24th St., 215-703-2010; ambrosiabyob.com
The cutlet — pounded thin to tenderness, breaded crisp and deftly fried — is one of my family’s favorite food groups. So when Beth and Lou Amadio opened their first dinner place in Belmont Hills in 2015 and named it Cotoletta (that’s “cutlet” in Italian), my crew insisted we go.
And it did not disappoint, as we grazed through the variations made with chicken, eggplant, and a special bone-in chop flattened into a grand veal Parmesan. Beth then upped the ante by piling several varieties on top of each other for her signature “Stack” — a multi-layered Mount Cutlet of chicken, eggplant, and sausage-stuffed long hot chilies laced with molten provolone and tangy red gravy. Over the top? Definitely. But a diabolically delicious cutlet overload.
Cotoletta, to be sure, does more than cutlets, but they’re emblematic of the homestyle cooking the self-taught chef leaned on as her original BYOB became a popular suburban destination for other relics of 20th-century Phila-talian cooking, like the Milan salad, whose kicked-up Thousand Island dressing, bacon bits, Old Bay-scented shrimp, and hard-boiled egg are one of the best arguments for the utility of iceberg lettuce.
I had to wonder, though, how Cotoletta would translate to the city setting of its stylish new branch on Fitler Square. Success is hardly a given considering the tricky location, which was most successfully occupied by a beloved branch of affordable Dmitri’s. The prime parkside-corner rent demands something moderately upscale, but residents crave something more neighborhood-friendly. And Cotoletta, with its lavender leather chairs, date-night prices, and old-school menu, exudes a retro formality that feels a little dated here. There’s a bar at this location, too, but the basic cocktails and wine list need some more work. Especially following in the wine-bar wake of the most recent tenant, Tria Cafe, this feels more like an amenity bar than a drinker’s destination.
I could get technical with gripes over misused menu names, like a chunky tomato-sauced seafood medley over linguine that’s really more frutti di mare pasta than cioppino, or a veal Oscar special that oddly had cheese, but no béarnaise. But both were delicious, along with much of Cotoletta’s menu. And that makes it a bit easier to overlook. From the chicken meatball starter to basic steamed clams, and the rigatoni with gravy and traditional meatballs whose mixed-meat blend is cleverly hydrated with pureed onions, the flavors here are as satisfying as they are familiar.
But dinner may not even be Cotoletta’s best move. Brunch taps a relaxed vibe that feels more in tune with the neighborhood’s youthful tone. We got a sunny dose of charm from one of my new favorite servers, André Evers, who gamely chased down different diners at two separate meals who had left behind credit cards (I’m guilty). You’ll also find disappearing South Philly breakfast icons, like the giambotta kitchen sink omelet, as well as the hearty Italian sandwiches Beth used to make at Homemade, her old shop in Narberth. The “Sami’s Way,” with eggplant, long hots, sweet peppers, sharp provolone, and chicken cutlets piled into a seeded hoagie roll, is two fistfuls of formidable flavor to start your day.
But naturally, the master brunchwork at Cotoletta comes piled into a Franken-stack — this time with waffles sandwiching the chicken, sausage-stuffed long hots, and two sunny-side-up eggs sloshed in maple syrup. It’s essentially an Italianized version of chicken and waffles. Sweet, spicy, and savory. Crunchy, pillowy, and oozy rich. The cutlet proves yet again to be a favorite food group, but even more versatile than I ever imagined. Cotoletta, 2227 Pine St., 267-519-9697; cotolettafs.com
I always root for veteran restaurants that have survived a couple decades in their quest to find a way to remain relevant, fresh, and essential. But does the answer always mean growing up to become fancier and more expensive? Palma’s Cucina, the upscale remake of Mama Palma’s at 23rd and Spruce, may be a cautionary tale.
“We’re not just a pizza place anymore," said Brunella Russo, who launched what became the city’s wood-fired pizza pioneer 23 years ago with her brother Renato, the pizzaiolo.
The urge to redecorate after so many years was understandable. And they did a fine job of freshening the space, with new tables from Italy and colorful caned chairs for outdoor seating, an inside wall knocked down for a more open feeling, custom cabinetry for the new cocktail bar, and a waiting area bench with imported cushions. It sets a welcoming tone that carried through to the service, which was as outgoing as ever.
I’m not a fan of the new TV screen on the wall that cycles through postcard images of Southern Italy; the slideshow above our table reminded me of eating in an airport. But the pride in the Russos’ home country is admirable. And it’s best communicated through the specialties inspired by their mother, Palma Russo, that anchor the still-worthy first half of the menu.
Renato’s signature polenta bread, with a creamy puree of sweet, fresh corn spread over pizza dough with roast peppers, is as irresistible as ever. And while his pizza menu has been pared down from nearly 30 choices to six, those pies are still very good, with a light, well-developed crust in the Neapolitan style that snaps beneath the veal sausage, peppers, and basil of the Juliano. Other family favorites — the sausage-forward meatballs with whipped ricotta, the ricotta-based polpetti balls, or even the basic fusilli in red sauce — are reminders why the old Mama Palma’s became a neighborhood standby to begin with.
Palma’s more ambitious new entree section of the menu is shaky, though, at best. A whole poussin was pan-roasted so hard it was rubbery. The $25 strip steak was served not hot. A nearly total lack of crustacean in the lobster cannelloni was the least of this $27 dish’s problems; a pool of straight marinara dolloped with gooey mozzarella was a clumsy, uncomplimentary choice of sauce, while the cannelloni’s pasta sheets were gummy and stuck to the bottom of the dish.
I did enjoy the thick pork chop over creamy polenta. But so many other problems persisted. The liver with onions and pancetta was overfried into chalky little nuggets. And flubs with basic pastas, like a potentially satisfying Bolognese drowned at the finish with too much cream or the clumpy fettuccine heaped with chunky mushrooms, betrayed a chef hired to execute the expanded menu who clearly has little experience cooking Italian food.
If the whole point of this transformation was to rebrand Mama Palma’s as a player for your $25-entree-night out, it hasn’t made a convincing case. But that’s perhaps the result of a more elemental miscalculation: There’s no dishonor in being “just a pizza place,” especially given the progress and vision our pizza scene has displayed over the past decade. In fact, given all the high-end aspirations now competing in this neighborhood, what Fitler Square really needs is a truly great pizzeria. Whether the owners realize it or not, that’s a role that Palma’s Cucina is uniquely suited to reach for. Palma’s Cucina, 2229 Spruce St., 215-735-7357; palmascucinaphilly.com