Dinner at Angelina's is like eating in Nonna's living room
Franco and Angela Iovino are serving up the comfort of homey southern Italian cooking.
The Symphony House may well remain a viable place to live on South Broad Street, despite the fact that its Pepto pink facade has been a front-runner in the city's ugliest condo category since it was dubbed a contender nearly a decade ago by my colleague Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron. But its record is even uglier as an experiment in extending Center City's restaurant district to the southern end of the Avenue of the Arts. It's been a black hole for some of the biggest names in local restaurants, from Main Line master Marty Grims to Top Chef Kevin Sbraga, who saw his signature venture end in a sheriff's sale.
But lost amid the noise of those high-profile collapses (three in all, including Du Jour in the prime Broad Street space) were the curious perseverance, fine handmade pastas, and eventual surrender of the Iovino family, who ran the gold-plated glitz of Girasole on the building's Pine Street frontage for nearly nine years. By the time they closed their Italian dining room there this spring, Franco and Angela Iovino had outlasted the building's other restaurant tenants, but they'd also lost a million dollars of investment in their swanky space. "We lost everything we had," said Angela, noting that they had built upon the previous two decades in their original Girasole space on Locust at 13th Street (currently Nomad Roman).
"That's OK. We still have our strength — and I'm stronger than I look."
She may be a 61-year-old Neapolitan grandma of four, but she's not kidding. Her latest chapter involves cooking seven nights a week at a new BYOB in South Philly called Angelina's, with her dapper 67-year-old husband charming the dining room, as always. And that feisty spirit is readily apparent through the open windows of the galley kitchen that anchors the front corner of their 25-seat space, where she's a one-woman dervish at a stove with three working burners, spinning handmade pastas, simmering osso bucos to tenderness, flame-charring peppers to be peeled between courses, and simply doing what she knows best, serving up the comfort of the homey southern Italian cooking she grew up with in Caivano, just northeast of Naples. Tenderly braised meats. Intricately layered casseroles glazed — but not drowning — in soulful yet elegant red gravy. And a handful of nightly specials based on whatever fresh ingredients Franco decides to pick up from his Italian Market friends each day.
The dining room is anything but fancy. The front window has a crack in it. The linen-draped round tables seem makeshift and small — especially if you bring more than one bottle (probably a good idea). There's also a series of oddly small pictures of Sophia Loren on the wall that were supposed to be poster-sized — but that came back from the printer as 8-by-10s: "We're kind of not finished decorating," concedes the Iovinos' daughter, Michele, 40, who helps her mom in the kitchen.
But dinner at Angelina's feels like eating in your Italian nonna's living room — a sensation that's beginning to fade in ever-evolving South Philadelphia. Of course, a few of Girasole's signature luxuries remain. Like the paper-thin tuna carpaccio glazed in good olive oil and little bits of sun-dried tomatoes that tease out an almost fruity note from the raw pink fish. And the big veal chop that gets pounded out, butterflied, and pan-fried in house bread crumbs for a classic Milanese that, at $29, is the menu's most expensive item. A thick arm of octopus, slow-poached to tenderness with bay and peppercorns, then sliced lengthwise and griddled to a crisp over potatoes and pickled peppers is a reminder of the chef's innate knack for seafood.
But the true strength of this menu are the homey dishes whose refined simplicity really speak to the back-to-basics spirit of this late-career venture. No one knows how to handle eggplant better than a Neapolitan chef. Angela shaves hers paper-thin before pan-frying them in a Parmesan-rich egg wash and layering them with mozzarella and a delicate red sauce that rings with the scent of fresh basil. Iovino's workhorse red sauce is distinct from so many forever-steeped South Philly gravies because she cooks it for less than an hour, with a vegetal tone of celery and sweet hint of carrot that add an orange hue to the puree and lend it a buoyant levity. Even her braciola, a flattened steak pinwheeled around a stuffing of garlic, Parmesan, and parsley, is removed from the darkness of its long tomato braise for a fresher, lighter sauce to finish alongside some perfect meatballs and a chunk of sausage.
It's that subtle brightness that distinguishes so many dishes here, like the chicken Parm spaghetti special that prizes delicacy — and snappy al dente noodles — over the sloppy heft that dooms so many pretenders. Even her Bolognese, a dish that commonly errs on the heavy side, is notable for a ragù that feels enriched rather than overwhelmed by the crumbles of beef, veal, and pork that create a gravy that clings to the pasta and doesn't weigh it down. Of course, it helps that Iovino makes her own pasta daily, her egg-rich pappardelle hand-cut with a zipper edge that seems to grab the sauce even more.
The uncut sheets of pasta are key for Angelina's distinctively homestyle lasagna, a remarkably low-rise stack considering there are five layers with tiny meatballs, mozzarella, and chopped hard-boiled egg tucked inside the delicately sauced folds. (I'd prefer it without the egg, but, hey, tradition is tradition.)
As good as Angela is, she isn't infallible. The potato gnocchi in creamy cheese sauce were pretty good, but shy of great (at least compared to the softer ricotta pillows at Cucina Forte just a block down on South Eighth Street.) And the pasta was surprisingly overcooked by a shade for her favorite dish, the carbonara, whose beaten egg sauce studded was a little crumbly, rather than silky, from cooking too hot alongside the chunks of smoked pancetta. On the other hand, her tagliolini had the perfect snap for a pasta special that came with plump shrimp in a tomato sauce set off by the peppery crunch of arugula leaves. The full-flavored braise of the fork-tender osso buco made up for the bed of risotto that was clearly par-cooked.
A restaurant this small, run almost single-handedly by a couple who might otherwise be kicking back with their senior discounts at the movies if not for their unfortunate stint on Pine Street, is bound to have some limitations. But there's also a special magic in watching this couple, who've worked together in restaurants for 41 years since arriving to Philadelphia from Naples, do what comes naturally on a scale that also feels manageable. Franco, eschewing the modern headaches of computer systems, has peeled back the decades to go old-school with handwritten checks and cash only, of course.
"He wants to do it his way and do it on his own," says daughter Michele. "Just him and his wife." (And their Neapolitan nephew, Luca Piedimonte, who works as a server.)
By the evening's end, as the little dining room drained of all but a few customers, and as the classic desserts started to land on tables — a fluffy ricotta cheesecake, a rich chocolate mousse — a well-practiced banter got rolling between the two for our entertainment. Angela poked her head out through the kitchen window to point out that his description of her memorable croccantino, a densely creamy semifreddo filled with caramelized almonds and shaved chocolate, was not quite right. "He always gets it wrong," she said with a feisty sparkle in her eye. "It's like a torrone, but frozen."
"That's what she always says. For 40 years, I've been getting it wrong!"
He shrugged with the smile of a guilty man who couldn't be more happy. Because at Angelina's, this enduring couple bound by pasta and persistence are absolutely getting it right.