There are only four courses printed on the $72 tasting menu at Ambra. But in actuality, the staff begins feeding guests surprises the moment they enter this curious little atelier of hand-hewn wood, iron, and culinary ambition in Queen Village.
A perfect tortellini stuffed with spring favas bobs inside a coffee cup gulp of saffron broth. The flaky crunch of a tiny tart shell, mounded with zesty diced raw tuna and cubes of veal head terrine, is a one-bite riff on vitello tonnato. A mini-muffuletta, a golf-ball-size sesame bread stuffed with salumi, cheese, and olive salad, is the Nola-inspired picnic treat of my dreams.
With the complimentary prosecco flowing (especially during the 20-minute table delay for an 8 p.m. reservation), it felt like I'd already eaten a meal by the time we sat down to olives, white anchovies, and a soft round of warm potato focaccia that disappeared before we even considered the menu.
The premeal feeding frenzy is no doubt the kind of hospitality boost and value-enhancer chef and co-owner Chris D'Ambro learned a dozen years ago working as an unpaid intern at Vetri, soaking in the genius of a kitchen line stacked with Michael Solomonov, Joey Baldino, and Dionicio Jimenez, who introduced him, among other things, to nose-to-tail cooking.
"It was the first time I ever peeled the face off a pig," says D'Ambro. He also admired the rare sense of intimate gastronomy and personalization that Vetri's Spruce Street gem still embodies.
So much has transpired for D'Ambro since: studies at the Culinary Institute of America; jobs at Savona, Gilmore's, Talula's Table, and Talula's Garden, where he met future fiancée and partner Marina de Oliveira. He cooked abroad in Italy and Mexico before finally returning to Philadelphia to take over Southwark in 2016.
That beloved neighborhood gastropub is both around the corner and connected to Ambra through its back kitchen, its liquor license - and its financial stability. A 16-seat tasting room that takes the kind of creative and menu risks Ambra does - from blood sausage ravioli to whimsical concept pieces like "the Life of an Italian mushroom" - doesn't have the mass appeal to be sustainable on its own.
Not yet, at least, while D'Ambro continues to polish his creative vision for modern Italian food with ever-changing menus that often thrill, but that also occasionally hiccup over dishes that have yet to be refined - including hyperinventive and daring pastas that, with a little more polish, should be his calling card. More on those later.
But with the luxury of their neighborhood-friendly bar to back the boutique (named for his ancestral village near Florence), D'Ambro can linger over the details of what it takes to seed a gastronomic destination. A big part of that is the unique decor crafted by D'Ambro's furniture-building brother, Joseph, who used a gorgeous array of American woods (hickory, walnut, mahogany, cherry, and spalted maple) fitted with natural contours, iron, and poured concrete to craft tables, molded chairs, and a space room that's modern, rustic, personal, and moody, especially when set to the jazz sound track of Chet Baker and Stephane Grappelli.
The earnest (though sometimes awkward) enthusiasm of Ambra's service led by general manager Michael Wiegand, who does a nice job pairing the small but geek-friendly Italian wines, fits right in.
Too bad D'Ambro doesn't have another brother who specializes in lighting, because the illuminated fabric wall boxes and boarded-over front window leave diners in shadows. I was blinded more than once by the raking beam of an iPhone light from a neighbor.
There's too much good stuff on these plates to be missed. Among my favorites were a scallop crudo brightened with fennel-blood orange vinaigrette over a crispy carta di musica cracker blackened with squid ink. The texture of lightly pickled mackerel was luscious against the sweetness of creamy carrot puree. Monkfish was perfectly poached in a garlicky vermouth "scampi" broth and glazed with lobster sabayon.
D'Ambro's kitchen is also generously unafraid to let the truffles fly, shaving so many earthy black threads over a plate of porcini risotto it smelled as though it had been served to us on a spade. The $10 supplement was a bargain. A celery root and Taleggio panna cotta was also elevated by truffle threads, as was the "Life of an Italian Mushroom," which contrasted the luxury of a truffled stracciatella toast with three versions of what is essentially the same mushroom in different stages of maturity: shaved raw buttons, a seared cremini, and a portobello carpaccio.
Such elaborate compositions show the best versions of D'Ambro's talent for conceiving dishes as complex, multipart stories. A reimagined venison osso buco, the braised shank meat picked and rolled into a tube around a "bone" carved from a potato, which was then filled with creamy celery root and marrow, was another. So was the anise-scented duck breast with duck meatballs over puntarella greens alongside cippolini onions stuffed with grappa-flamed duck innards.
But just when I think Ambra is ready for the elite three-bell status it is possibly destined for, perhaps even by this year's end, there were still too many instances when D'Ambro's ideas needed one more tweak or refinement to rise from "neat" to "amazing." And too many of them were pastas, which for an Italian restaurant are crucial.
An oxtail-filled soup dumpling gnocchi inspired by a lunch at Dim Sum Garden was brilliant, but too thick and doughy. I loved the taste of sourdough spaghetti with guanciale and chilies, but the needed brininess from its razor clams was too mild and incidental. There was too much oven-browned crunch and not enough crepelike softness in the baked manicotto with duck ragù. And though I admired the boldness of a wild boar ravioli wrapped in dough turned chocolate brown with pigs' blood (plus crumbles of blood sausage), the dumplings' centers were too mushy.
The other pasta on the most recent tasting menu, a snappy tagliatelle made with seaweed then tossed with octopus, spicy 'nduja, and smoked potato cream was a more coherent success. But the fact that such edgy dishes were the only two pasta choices for the month's menu just emphasizes that Ambra's default level of adventurousness is not likely to have mass appeal. Conservative eaters would likely go for March's silky chocolate crostata but might have pause with January's more savory, cheffy millefoglie of chocolate crepes layered with parsnip crème.
Of course, the beauty of Ambra is that its 16 seats are subsidized by Southwark's more accessible experience. It's one of the rare places in Philly where a talented young chef has the luxury to pursue his passions, experiment, and hone a distinctive voice. As that vision becomes clearer, brighter, and finds its true audience, we'll have a special new place, indeed.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews At the Table BYOB in Wayne.