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Craig LaBan
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Savona, in remaking its image from fine-dining to more casual, forgets the fundamentals

This old standby may well have the right idea in where it needs to go in order to remain relevant. But to get there, they need to start with the fundamentals.

Savona Restaurant in Gulph Mills.
Savona Restaurant in Gulph Mills.Read moreAKIRA SUWA / For The Inquirer

Something was rotten in Gulph Mills. And it was dangling from my fork:

A $32 hunk of American Kobe flat-iron steak, presumably a luxurious delight, was instead radiating a sulfurous stench. It was such a powerful funk, I could smell it from the table. "Like a bad egg," said the guest next to me. And as I lifted the fork toward my lips, all attempts to fight the repulsion reflex in my brain for a nibble ended in refusal to swallow.

"Is everything OK?" asked our French server at Savona, showing a faint glimmer of concern for the first time in an evening when she'd shown mostly disinterest. When she wasn't off snacking at every pass of the bread station, she was forgetting to bring my glass of wine. Or she was making an executive decision to omit the sauce from my lactose-intolerant guest's short rib without asking us — despite the fact the sauce contains no dairy (contrary to her claim that it contained cream).

Have you ever seen a naked brick of braised short rib? Fraying at its edges, drying out from the kitchen's heat, it's an ugly beast of gray meat. It looked lonely and unappetizing over an iron platter squiggled with pureed peas and tiny carrots. But at least it was tender, and it didn't seem dangerous — unlike the flat iron in question, which had been whisked away without discussion or apologetic fuss. A do-over had been fired without consulting us first.

It was presumptuous to assume we'd want to give that steak another try. But in this case, I'm glad she did: The encore cut (which the restaurant properly comped) was buttery, clean, and richly beefy. It was also severely undercooked, with a tough sinew threading its still basically raw center. But it was good to know our first plate was a weird anomaly at a restaurant long known for its fine ingredients. Not that Savona's staff seemed overly concerned. A shrug and a "who knows?" was all we got as a follow-up explanation for that steak.

"Was everything else OK?" asked a manager.

"No, not really. It wasn't OK," I replied with rare tableside candor. In fact, I had a lot of issues with this latest incarnation of Savona, a perennial three-beller that recently underwent another renovation in its continuous quest to become more accessible. Did they really want to know?

Clearly not. They picked up the plates from our table in awkward silence, brought the bill, and let us leave.

I needed to return for another visit to give this old personal favorite and venerable standby another chance. It's not easy for a restaurant to remain relevant for 20 years, especially a high-end destination such as Savona, which began life as a gastronomic Main Line temple of French Riviera cuisine and world-class wines, and then, after the crash of 2008, decided it had to become more casual — and more Italian — ASAP. It has been a multiphase process over the last decade, with the addition of a wraparound terrace and a second menu of less-expensive pizzas and pastas. The most recent revamp opened the kitchen behind a picture window, expanded the bar seating, added blackboards and butcher-block tables to the plush gray dining rooms, and finally merged the dual-personality menus into one, including a casserole section (misspelled in Italian) with chicken pot pie and macaroni and cheese.

It's a reasonable strategy for co-owner Evan Lambert and his partner Andrew Masciangelo, a conscientious chef with a long track record of three-bell quality, who was apparently on vacation during the incident of the nasty steak. "It's one of our best sellers," he said, having never encountered a similar offcut in his kitchen. "I just ate one last night."

His kitchen lieutenants should have noticed that stinker in his absence. They also should have picked the unopened clams out of the otherwise delicious bowl of fregola sarda with seafood in brothy green pesto. They might also have cooked the pizza, a crackery flatbread, until the oddly rubbery square chunks of mozzarella began to soften.

I'm also betting the chef would wince at the unenthusiastic menu advice offered by his staff, in particular the young French servers who come to Savona on an annual exchange program to anchor the otherwise inexperienced staff of young locals with attitudes that range from frosty to contemptuous.

"Where I come from, it's baked," was all I got when I asked one of the Frenchwomen how the market fish casserole was prepared. In fact, it comes over an intricately layered potato-tomato terrine moistened in fish stock. I would have ordered it had I known.

"I don't like pastas very much," sniffed another French server. "But this one has lobster, so it's OK." Not exactly a hard-sell for the corzetti, a small portion of stamped pasta coins in a bisquey velouté topped with a few tepid nuggets of crustacean for $32. We were better off with the comfort pastas, such as the pillowy agnolotti of chicken and prosciutto in a buttery sage emulsion, or the snappy threads of pasta alla chitarra, which were delicious, coiled into a heap beside three big meatballs that were white inside with veal and ricotta.

That chitarra was one of the few highlights of my second visit, when things improved only slightly. A branzino fillet marked by the hardwood grill was beautifully simple, a great ingredient not ruined, and set beside an evocative Mediterranean trio of tomato compote, olive tapenade, and roasted peppers. A thick slice of seared Scottish salmon was satisfying over stewed chickpeas. The pizza topped with little beech mushrooms and goat cheese was solid, if unexciting. A baked apricot custard clafouti for dessert was a sweet and simple showcase for summer fruit.

There were two small bright spots at my first meal as well: an appetizer of crisply fried artichokes and the lightly seared cubes of five-second tuna.

But the complimentary shot of chilled watermelon gazpacho was mealy and brown. A crudo of scallop and sea urchin, which should have been chilled, had warmed to room temperature by the time the raw shellfish was served. A single arm of tender grilled octopus for

$17 also appeared to have waited around too long, its exterior dried to a leathery matte.

A four-bone rack of lamb, seemingly unseasoned and startlingly plain considering its $49 price tag, was on the raw side of medium-rare. The kitchen successfully cooked it more, but neglected to add at least a few more grains of salt. A side of "haystack potatoes" had the opposite problem of being oversalted, though it was the fact these shoestrings were limp, pale, and shining with grease that really made me wonder who, if anyone, was really paying attention.

At least I could always wash away Savona's culinary troubles with a stellar drink.

Except I couldn't.  The cocktails, once fantastic under former mixologist Papi Hurtado, were artless. A glass of wildly overpriced manzanilla sherry, typically briskly cold and fresh, was served insipidly warm in a snifter. Yes, Savona still has a fabulous bottle list of 1,000-plus wines, mostly still French (though with a strong American presence) and targeted to big spenders. But unless you opt for one of the "superpremium" pours of Kistler or Insignia, the glass selections are uninspired, especially in my quest for crisp Italian whites, considering the menu's seafood-centric focus. The trebbiano was too flabby. An exotic Hungarian furmint was a better bet. A chardonnay from Pays d'Oc, a bargain region not considered a French hot spot for chardonnay, was serviceable enough — except for all the huge chunks of cork that were floating in my glass.

At this moment, my palm actually smacked my face. Who could ever have imagined a meal of broken cork, questionable ingredients, and spotty, haughty service at Savona? This old standby may well have the right idea as to where it needs to go to remain relevant. But getting there is about the daily details and not forgetting the very fundamentals that brought it acclaim to begin with.