In the beginning, John Wolferth simply had the idea to help a friend. It was the fall of 2009, and he had been out of fine dining for three years since selling his Sola in Bryn Mawr. He'd been running a burger joint in Media called Wimpy's as a change of pace, and was doing good business. But he was also a little bored.
So when his pal, Clark Gilbert, was about to open Gemelli in Narberth, Wolferth donned his old white chef's apron and arrived for opening night as a surprise.
"I thought it'd just be fun to show up his first weekend, be a decent friend, offer an extra pair of hands and wish him well on his first restaurant," said Wolferth.
But something else also happened. As Wolferth set about making shrimp mousse, cannelonis, and pestos - not just for that first night, but for several weekends to follow - something familiar was reawakened inside him.
"I felt like I was home again," says Wolferth. "The energy, the excitement, being on the line. I missed everything about it. . . . This is who I am."
And so began the gradual process of redirecting his career back to the Main Line's fine-dining scene, where he'd worked for years under Albert Breuer at the Old Guard House Inn, Siggie's L'Auberge, Tierra, Toscana, La Parisienne, and the Wooden Iron, before opening Sola.
Little did Wolferth expect that the space he'd finally reemerge in, nearly two years later, would be Gilbert's Narberth BYO, which he vacated this spring to open the larger Gemelli on Main in Manayunk.
The address itself, with its cheery little front porch nestled into a residential slice of rowhouse Narberth, has seen its share of recent history. The warm Dijon-colored bistro, with its soft lighting, tiled floors, tasseled curtains, and chef's counter ringing the open kitchen, has hosted a number of successful local favorites, most notably Carmine's Creole Cafe, then Margot, before Gilbert settled in briefly.
It was usually, despite the rapid turnover, a reliable spot for a refined meal without too much pretense, a true asset in an area where quality upscale eating experiences are few. And Wolferth has done little to change that good culinary karma, sticking with a well-wrought bistro spirit rather an overly ambitious menu that tries too hard to be a destination.
The service staff is spare, but outgoing and professional. And Wolferth has shaved prices a few dollars off Gemelli's last menu, toned down the glare over the open kitchen, and added a bit more soundproofing to the once-noisy room - all smart tweaks. For the most part, though, dining at Aperto will feel relatively familiar to fans of Gemelli, as the two chefs share similarities in their Eurocentric cooking styles, rooted in French basics, but with an affinity for Italian accents.
There is hand-pulled mozzarella (sometimes stuffed with creamy ricotta for burrata) paired with lightly oven-dried tomatoes and arugula pesto. Mushroom soup, pureed to a silky froth, comes topped with a crispy croquette of tangy goat cheese. There are escargots shined in mahogany Port sauce that's brightened with verjus and the crunch of pistachios. And a gorgeous mound of salmon tartare is a clever blend of both fresh and smoked salmon, a subtle textural and flavor contrast that becomes more vivid beneath a tart drizzle of dilled yogurt tzatziki.
For dessert, Wolferth keeps it simple but homemade. And the results are satisfying - a caramelly and moist apple bread pudding, a pliant crepe folded around tart lemon curd, and our favorite, a martini glass parfait of espresso-infused panna cotta layered over a rich lower tier of dark chocolate ganache.
At his best, with the entrées of slow-braised meats, Wolferth conjures dishes I'd crave regularly if I lived closer - in particular his lamb sugo, a rustic bowl of tenderly stewed leg meat pulled to shreds in a brothy lamb gravy over pappardelle noodles with long-stemmed artichokes. The pappardelle reappeared on my second visit beneath a zesty crumble of guanciale-tinged wild boar Bolognese, amped even further with herbs and red wine. A plate of slow-cooked veal cheeks was so impossibly soft the almost feathery meat practically melted into the cauliflower puree at the tap of a fork.
Of course, that cheek dish didn't need gnocchi, too, which were sort of like adding starch to the starch (the puree) when I would have preferred a grace note of something green. There were other dishes that stumbled shy of their potential due to awkward compositions. The use of hummus as starch below an otherwise perfect chicken breast, for example, was a poor choice. Not only did its Middle Eastern flavor land askew of the Provençale notes of the ratatouille garnish, it was like slicing into chicken over pasty quicksand.
Too many elements sank what could have been a nice scallop special had the chef stopped simply with the squash-filled agnolotti before adding the unnecessary distraction of brussels sprouts, and then the crunch of almonds. A hearty cassoulet filled with lamb sausages was an ideal special to temper the creeping fall chill. Next time, though, I'd also hope for hunks of duck confit instead of the secondary garnish of those lightweight chicken sausages, which, please, have no place in such a gutsy dish.
But these were relatively small blemishes on what was otherwise a pair of very enjoyable meals. Wolferth seems to be cooking at his best in many years, lightening up just a shade on some dishes that, a while ago, might have been too rich. The sweetbread special was a good example, an all-star plate for gland fans that brought tender morsels with a seasonal flourish of Swiss chard and cubed butternut squash. The beautifully fried oysters, crisped inside a delicate crust of masa corn and rice flour over spicy lime-dressed jicama slaw, had improved significantly since the opening weeks, according to my guest, a bivalve-obsessed local.
Wolferth's grouper was an excellent piece of seared fresh fish over seasonal vegetables and a rich shellfish "nage" sauce that was lightly tuned up with cream and earthy truffle shavings (not, thankfully, the dreaded oil). The gingered-carrot miso sauce offered a completely different personality for the seared salmon - an unexpected Asian touch that was slightly off-character for Aperto's Euro-menu. Then again, so were the chicken spring rolls and the Viet summer rolls that have also made tasty cameos.
But Wolferth feels so liberated to be back in the fine-dining kitchen cooking what he likes that he's not interested in hemming his menu in too much with labels: "If I do it well, and the customer likes it, then it's OK."
To watch him now back in chef whites where he belongs, joyfully banging pots in the very open kitchen where he rediscovered his cooking passion, it is hard to disagree.
Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan hosts an online chat at 2 p.m. Tuesdays at http://go.philly.com/phillytalk.