No credit, no reservations - no problem at delightful A Mano
At this advanced stage in our convenience-obsessed dining economy, the mere notion of an expensive restaurant that takes only cash but accepts no reservations is a turn-off to say the least. Add a sparely decorated dining room and surging weekend crowds, including a loud laugher who croaked like Arnold Horshack behind our table all night, pushing the sound level to a 95-decibel roar, and you have a few strikes against A Mano that might understandably cross it off the list for many.
At this advanced stage in our convenience-obsessed dining economy, the mere notion of an expensive restaurant that takes only cash but accepts no reservations is a turn-off to say the least.
Add a sparely decorated dining room and surging weekend crowds, including a loud laugher who croaked like Arnold Horshack behind our table all night, pushing the sound level to a 95-decibel roar, and you have a few strikes against A Mano that might understandably cross it off the list for many.
Fine. I'll be the one laughing maniacally then, because that will simply mean more of these exquisite pastas for me.
They are so good, in fact, it's almost as though the noise and distractions just fade away and a spotlight shines down when a small bowl of mezzaluna lands on the rustic wood table before me.
Each of the four half-moon-shaped ravioli, crimped around the edges into undulating ruffles and glossed tawny with balsamic butter, is topped with what looks like a white paper cutout of a tiny tree.
They are, in fact, cross-sections of a raw cauliflower florette. And they're sheared so razor-thin they crack at the slightest bite, making way for the even more delicate crunch of toasted slivered almonds, and then the silky snap of a pasta skin luxuriously rich with eggs. Inside those dumplings, meanwhile, is a soft pillow of roasty cauliflower puree, bound with creamy Parmesan and peppery Percorino.
My only complaint is there were not more. But there were so many other pastas to sample. There were lumachelle, a toothy house-extruded semolina pasta shaped like billowy elbow tubes that cradled zesty all'Amatriciana sauce inside, giving little bursts of red sauce scented with bacony guanciale, marjoram, and chili-flake heat. There were little puffs of potato gnocchi basking in wild boar ragu, whose gamy meat was tempered by sweet cubes of cast-iron-blistered apples.
And when a nightly special of tortellini-shaped cappellacci arrived stuffed with slow-braised osso buco veal, I saw fresh green favas and dimpled morel mushrooms cradled atop their folds and knew spring had come. So good.
A lot of people will be surprised that such impressive Italian flavors are coming from a restaurant owned by Townsend "Tod" Wentz, the Lacroix alum best known for refined French flavors at Townsend on East Passyunk Avenue. But Wentz, who got his start in Italian restaurants, used to make some exceptional pastas at Twenty21 before heading to A Voce in Greenwich, Conn. And this BYOB on Fairmount Avenue is actually a showcase for his longtime lieutenant, Michael Millon, 32, who followed Wentz to Connecticut and eventually rose to executive sous chef at A Voce in Manhattan before returning to help launch Townsend.
As debut stages go, A Mano - "by hand" in Italian - is a classic Philly BYO, a simply decorated but warm 48-seat corner space outfitted with rustic wood tables and a long banquette, an open kitchen in back, and cafe windows bordering two sides of the former produce market. The steady spotlight here is on the food and service.
The dining room staff shows the same professional ease that Townsend does, and they're well-informed about the menu - when you can hear them. The noise was far more manageable during a midweek visit but will hopefully improve permanently now that acoustic tiles have just been installed (since my visits).
Wentz says the 3 percent profit he saves by forgoing credit cards for cash only has allowed him the slack for investment in such details, as well as large staff - a challenge, given the slim margins of a BYOB where the chef-owner rarely works the line. The no-reservations policy is his answer to those who say they can never get a table at Townsend.
Millon is showing with every course why Wentz has placed such faith in him, from the excellent house-made focaccia that greets guests with olive-oil-whipped butter to an epic slow-braised pork shank that is already a signature dish, its fork-tender meat aromatic with fennel and rosemary over earthy buckwheat polenta enriched with taleggio.
As with his pastas, each dish takes rustic ideas to a more refined level with subtle, intricate layers. A silky parsnip-and-pear soup brings the surprising crunch of toasted chestnuts riding a swirl of brown butter. A gorgeous crudo of diced arctic char takes on the unexpected dairy tang of a buttermilk dressing scented with mild vadouvan curry and the snap of sunchoke chips on top. And Millon delivers one of the best reasons that the city's chefs are suddenly cooking tripe - the diced honeycomb accented by the soft pop of chickpeas and crispy guanciale nuggets in a rich gravy that rises on oregano and assertive spice.
Only a couple of dishes were less than great - a tough escarole salad that could have dialed back the anchovy just a notch; a braised short rib with celery root that was perfectly fine but sliding back a bit too far toward Wentz and Millon's French roots.
For the most part, this menu was a delight from start to finish. A thick slice of cotechino sausage, aromatic with the cinnamon and mace of Medici spice, was a cold-weather comfort in its terra cotta crock ringed with lentils. And although $26 seems like a lot for a piece of breaded chicken, A Mano's Milanese was so big we could hardly finish it, the tender breast juicy from a garlicky brine, and flavorful from herbs and lemon zest.
Millon's fish dishes were particularly impressive. A fan of skate wing was an elegant play on piccata, briny with capers, but set over the surprisingly soft tang of a pureed lemon sauce. A delicately crisped fillet of branzino was cooked with so much more finesse than the usual planks of clumsily panfried fish I too often see. But it was the whole dish that really caught my attention: the fish rode a raft of buttery turnip rounds ringed by a fiery orange streak of pureed 'nduja salami thinned to a vinaigrette with orange juice.
A house-made pasta alla chitarra turned black with squid ink dove to oceanic depths with steamed mussels bathed in sea urchin butter, then lifted on the crunch of minted bread crumbs.
For dessert, I would have preferred that delicious almond panna cotta with pear gelee unmolded on a plate for full swaying effect, rather than trapped like pudding at the bottom of a glass. But the sugar-dusted bomboloni were flawless, the doughnuts stuffed with a lemon-coffee mousse and a dark chocolate dip. And, oh, that semi-freddo of frozen creamy meringue, scented with trendy Bergamot oil, streaked with orange honey and dusted with minted green sugar over crushed chocolate cookies, was as delicious as it was beautiful.
Yes, A Mano serves me perhaps my most inconvenient meals of 2016. But they were also among the best - worth waiting in line for, visiting the ATM, and simply joining in the joyous noise.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews Chaat & Chai in South Philadelphia.
A MANO (three bells out of four)
2244 Fairmount Ave., 215-236-1114; amanophilly.com
Chef-owner Townsend "Tod" Wentz (of East Passyunk's French-themed Townsend) is the big name here, but this sparely decorated Fairmount BYOB is all about showcasing the refined Italian cooking of his talented young protégé, executive chef Michael Millon. The menu is built on hand-crafting, seasonal flavors, and intricately layered cooking, especially with some of the city's most exquisite pastas. The cash-only, no-reservations policies and noisy room are definite drawbacks. But with excellent service and an inspired kitchen, this one is worth the fuss.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Antipasti; arctic char crudo; tripe; cotechino; parsnip-pear soup; cauliflower mezzaluna; veal cappellacci special; lumachelle all'Amatriciana; squid ink alla chitarra; gnocchi with wild boar ragu; pork shank; branzino; skate; chicken Milanese; Bergamot semifreddo; bomboloni.
BYOB Italian wines, especially mid-bodied reds from Tuscanny on north, hit the slow-braised-meat sweet spot of the menu, though a crisp white verdicchio is a nice fit for the crudo, branzino, and skate.
WEEKEND NOISE When full, this room hits a terribly noisy 95 decibels. A midweek meal had a more reasonable volume, but real improvements may happen now that the soundproofing panels have arrived. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)
IF YOU GO Dinner Sunday, Tuesday through Thursday, 4:30-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until 11 p.m. Closed Monday.
Dinner entrees, $26-$29.
Street parking only.