Scannicchio’s review: Corner BYOB keeps old-school Italian flavors alive in changing South Philly
It's part of a dying breed, that next wave of “post-red gravy” places launched by second- and third-generation Italian American families whose recipes evolved to embrace the prosperity upgrades of a slightly fancier pantry,
There is such a retro aura to everything about Scannicchio’s that it’s hard to imagine it hasn’t been at the corner of South Broad and Porter Streets for eons.
From the vintage Sinatra portrait in back presiding over a room trimmed with white linen, Eagles banners, and year-round Christmas lights to the fra diavolo spice that gives the scungilli its lip-numbing sting and the swagger that lent our server’s mere mention of a nightly special — “saw-zidge 'n figs” — its unmistakable neighborhood flavor, Scannicchio’s is a throwback to an era when Italian restaurants like this bloomed across much of South Philly.
At nearly 16 years old, it’s not exactly a new restaurant. It’s still a baby compared to old-school Italian centenarians like Ralph’s, Dante & Luigi’s, Marra’s, and Villa di Roma (whose original location opened in the early 1920s). But it is nonetheless now part of a dying breed, that next wave of “post-red-gravy” places launched by second- and third-generation Italian American families whose recipes evolved to embrace the prosperity upgrades of a slightly fancier pantry, with ingredients like balsamic, good olive oil, radicchio, and massive stuffed chops glossed dark with Marsala sauce, then piled high with celebratory fistfuls of crab.
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Some other places have stuck it out and remained vibrant, like Ristorante Pesto and Paradiso, a pioneer of the East Passyunk revival that also has some more modern moves. But that old-school style has waned and shifted to the suburbs with generational migration. In the city, the best Italian kitchens have turned more directly toward regional Italian inspirations, and South Philly’s rowhouse neighborhoods have been reenergized with exciting new waves of immigrant flavors from Southeast Asia and Mexico.
Chef and co-owner Christian Varalli arrived on the cusp of this big shift in 2003, when he opened a branch of the original Scannicchio’s, the Atlantic City institution that his dad, John Varalli, operated (commuting from South Philly) for 30 years until 2009. (The A.C. Scannicchio’s has resurfaced recently inside an A.C. bar called Lefty’s). Christian, 50, a St. John Neumann High School grad who grew up at 13th and Wharton and who spent summers riding the Faragalli’s bread delivery truck, was most certainly channeling the family’s big-flavored traditions.
There are garlicky steamed artichokes whose leaves are cushioned with seasoned bread crumbs drizzled in creamy Pecorino sauce; the family “red gravy” recipe simmered down for hours with veal bones and pig’s feet; and what might be the best clams casino in town, their moist crumb stuffings crackling with a bacon-pepper savor and lots of minced clam. And from the start, it became one of the best stops on South Broad Street for pregame calamari (fried or stuffed) before heading to one of the stadiums. The success of Philly’s sports teams has been a boon to Scannicchio’s, too.
But embracing Scanicchio’s contemporary reality as part of a more diverse South Philly was also essential from the beginning. The first person in the neighborhood Varalli met when he took over the building in 2003 was a Mexican man named Oscar Perez who paused on his bike for a conversation. It was a lucky encounter. Sixteen years later, Perez is the lead sous-chef at Scannicchio’s, where five of his relatives also work: “They are like family now,” Varalli says.
It took only a few years, Varalli laughs, for them to realize the family recipe for tripe simmered with onions and marinara was essentially the same thing as Mexican tripas, which get crisped on the plancha: “I love it in Vietnamese soup now, too,” Varalli says of his multicultural neighborhood awakening. “I’d thought it was just an Italian thing.”
Not that any fusion ideas have crept into the strictly Italian menu, which is an homage to Varalli’s upbringing. He also works with his childhood friend and business partner Michael (“his grandmother’s very Italian”) Gibson. Nine Varalli and Gibson family members regularly work at the restaurant, including waiter cameos from dad John. Varalli’s older brother, Marc, a middle school teacher by day, plies the dining room at night with a brisk hospitality that reliably warms as the night goes on, and comes with definitive recommendations: “Get the double-cut pork chop with figs. It’s amazing. My favorite.”
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The pork chop lived up to its billing, a nearly one-pound hunk of prime-grade pig that managed to be both tender and juicy all the way through its two-inch girth. And that sweet-tart fig sauce is an essential flavor here, whether you get it over the chop topped with crumbles of Gorgonzola or as an appetizer tossed with heat-crisped rounds of Maglio sausage. It’s a family recipe that harks back to the days when Varalli’s Calabrese and Abruzzese grandparents would lean out the second-floor windows of their South Philadelphia homes to harvest fresh figs dangling off the big trees in their backyards.
The piquant “Italiano” style is another winning alternative for that chop, with broccoli rabe and sharp provolone. An Italiano variation stuffed inside a one-pound veal chop, with prosciutto added to a carved-out pocket inside the meat along with greens and cheese, is another fine big-spender splurge. (At $42, it’s the most expensive dish on a menu that hovers in the mid $20s.)
I’m also a fan of Scannicchio’s take on Sicilian sauce, a colorful blend of hot and sweet peppers and olives in a lemony white wine sauce that soaks in enough tart zing from its cherry peppers to, as Christian says, “put a little sweat on your brow.” It’s a smart pork chop option, but also a classic choice for chicken. If real heat is your aim, though, the fra diavolo dials up the intensity with the spicy exclamation point of a grilled long hot that infuses the chunky marinara with a punchy burn that kept my fork coming back to the mushroom-like slivers of tender scungilli (conch) that’s a vintage favorite for regulars like Sal and Barbara Vetri (yes, Marc’s parents).
There are plenty of other typical seafood options here, though I had some mixed success with that portion of the menu. The tender fried calamari, simply crisped in seasoned flour to order, were a fresh-ingredient reminder of why that now-ubiquitous dish (often made elsewhere from frozen tubes) became such a widespread obsession to begin with. The clams casino, as noted before, are a must.
On the other hand, a baked branzino shaped into a basket around cherry tomatoes and a white confetti of less-than-awesome crabmeat was dry and overcooked. The restaurant’s signature “seven fishes” showpiece, a Christmas Eve seafood feast piled into a single dish, was about abundance more than finesse. There were some gems within the heap, especially the little clams, big sweet scallops, abundant mussels, and impressively tender stewed squid. But the linguine (never spaghetti for the Varalli family) was mushier than I like. (“Al dente” is not a trend Scannicchio’s has yet embraced.) And if I never see another puny prefrozen lobster tail broiled to rubbery oblivion then splayed atop a dish as a crowning flourish, I’d consider it progress — even if that means six fishes rather than seven.
What Scannicchio’s does best, in my mind, is simply honor some of the familiar touchstones with good ingredients and an experienced hand. Like the creamy but zesty Caesar dressing over greens that had a pleasantly bitter snap. Or the brightness of fresh lemon juice (and briny capers that haven’t been oversteeped) in a delicate piccata sauce for the lightly flour-dusted chicken breasts.
I also admired the balanced texture and flavors of the meatballs, a well-seasoned blend of beef, veal, and pork softened with milk-soaked bread. They came cloaked in a red gravy enriched for hours with roasted marrow bones and pig’s feet, a tradition passed down on Varalli’s Calabrian side that adds an extra depth of savor. That gravy, which isn’t as dark as some ragus I’ve tasted and which still retains the sweetness of its Saporito tomatoes, was a bright addition to some outstanding renditions of Parmesan, which brought a perfectly crisped chicken breast so large it covered the entire plate, and a piece of veal that was pounded but still thick enough to appreciate the meat’s quality.
This kitchen even managed to find just enough restraint to render the retro richness of cream-thickened sauces appealing once again. A low flame to prevent seizing and a finishing drizzle of peppery olive oil were the keys to keeping a Gorgonzola sauce for the gnocchi silky and irresistible. A lobster ravioli topped with cream-blushed marinara had such a bisquey sweet sea savor, accented by the pop of rock shrimp, that my guest, a South Jersey native with deep South Philly roots, dispatched it with a satisfied smile: “I feel like I just ate my childhood.”
With a creamy wedge of coffee-soaked tiramisu and a scoop of hazelnut gelato sandwiched between crunchy pizzelle cookies for sweet emphasis, that throwback sensation is one I’m sure many experience at Scannicchio’s. And it’s an essential legacy worth preserving while the rest of South Philly changes dramatically around it.
2500 S. Broad St., 215-468-3900; scannicchio.com
Come for the “saw-zidge n’ figs,” stay for a taste of old-school South Philly Italian flavors at this friendly corner BYOB. Regulars come for the stuffed artichokes, piled-high seafood pastas and “Italiano” chops as co-owner and chef Christian Varalli pays homage to his dad’s longtime Atlantic City institution. Over its 16 years on South Broad Street, Scannicchio’s has remained one of the best of a dying breed of legacy Italian American kitchens while also embracing its place in the neighborhood’s increasingly diverse landscape of newer immigrant flavors. It’s a great place near the stadiums to pregame on fresh calamari — if you’re lucky enough to get a table.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Stuffed artichokes; clams Casino; sausage with figs or broccoli rabe; fried calamari; scungilli fra diavolo; mozzarella- eggplant stack; meatballs and pasta; manicotti; gnocchi alla Gorgonzola; seafood alla Scannicchio; veal Saltimbocca; stuffed veal chop special; pork chop Italiano (or topped with figs and balsamic); chicken Sicilian; chicken piccata; pizzelle gelato sandwich.
BYOB This menu descends from Calabrese and Abruzzese family recipes, so wines from those regions in Southern and Central Italy (Gaglioppo from Cirò; Montepulciano; Nerello Mascalese; Trebbiano; Pecorino) are always a smart move.
WEEKEND NOISE The room gets lively, especially before games, but the persistent Sinatra soundtrack (and conversation) is usually easily audible.
IF YOU GO Dinner Monday through Thursday, 4:30-9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until 9:30; Sunday, 3-8 p.m.
Dinner entrees, $15.95-$35. (Specials can be higher).
All major cards.
Reservations highly recommended.
Not wheelchair accessible. There is one step at entrance, and bathroom is not wide enough for wheelchair.
Street parking only.