Had chef Peter McAndrews opened Monsù at the corner of Ninth and Christian 100 years ago, what would have happened to South Philly's red-gravy history?
I know that if I'd been one of those Southern Italian immigrants then, having come straight from the Washington Avenue docks to a boardinghouse run by the Palumbos or Dispignos (the founding famiglia of Ralph's), I would have dropped off my steamer trunk, then headed down the block to this boisterous trattoria for a bite, and a friendly nip of Sicilian grappa.
I mean, really, what homesick paesano from Palermo or Napoli wouldn't opt for some sardines stuffed with orange-scented bread crumbs, raisins, and almonds - or some tender veal tongue layered with rich onion broth over panfried scamorza cheese - over that newfangled American dish called "spaghetti and meatballs"?
The truth is, of course, the immigrants from Campania, Abruzzo, and Sicilia who settled in South Philadelphia didn't have the dollars for that kind of dining or, most especially, the ingredients to re-create the authentic flavors of home. So what evolved from their kitchens was wonderful in a different kind of way - a 20th-century gush of tomato ragù, sausage, and heaping pasta bowls that accounts for one of the most soulful and satisfying chapters in American food history.
That proud tradition has been somewhat tucked under the covers of nostalgia over the last decade or so, as chefs such as Marc Vetri, McAndrews, and many others traveled back to the Boot to rediscover Italy's genuine regional flavors with a modern sensibility. Most of the attention, though, has gravitated north.
It is long overdue for southern Italy to get a fresh look, and South Philly is the fitting place for it to finally begin. Le Virtù's inspired three-bell take on Abruzzo has set the standard. And now with Monsú, we get our first new taste of the vibrant flavors of Sicily, exotic with citrus, nuts, salted fish, and spice, but also cast with McAndrews' double-fisted personal flair, usually involving a panfried egg laid atop lasagna or steak.
His version of the island's famous arancini rice cakes is supersized and deconstructed as an "arancia," a delicately crisp bocce ball of fried risotto stuffed with tender short-rib stew, gratinéed with smoked caciocavallo cheese, and posed over a green puree of fresh peas (usually snuggled whole inside) boosted with a touch of mint. Delicately battered frog's legs come over pureed eggplant dabbed with rust-colored Sicilian mayonnaise tweaked with anchovy and bottarga.
An osso buco of pork stewed to tenderness with apricots and Marsala wine ratchets the intensity of bold flavors to a daring extreme, framing the vaguely sweet-and-sour agrodolce gravy in the bitter snap of broccoli rabe and the sweet, nutty crunch of caramelized sesame croccante.
Such freewheeling kitchen bravado is part of the secret to the success of McAndrews' sandwich shop, Paesano's, as well as his popular BYO, Modo Mio, which is a creative homage to the formative cooking years he spent in the more northern regions of Piemonte and Molise. But McAndrews has understandably since come under the spell of Sicily's unique brew of influences, which borrows flavors from the island's long history of conquerors and trade partners, from Spain and France to Moorish Tunisia and Greece. Even Mexico, which Spain had also conquered, plays a role here, in the chocolate and cinnamon that lend a surprising depth and harmony to a lasagna inspired by the town of Essene.
The restaurant's name itself is dialect to describe a Sicilian chef who trained in France (a corruption of Monsieur), and there are occasional Gallic accents here, too, from the red wine-sauced garlicky snails to the duck confit (anatra), whose gastrique sauce of orange marmalade takes on the Sicilian zing of pepperoncini spice and crushed hazelnuts. A salmon wrapped in puff pastry - an unforgivably dry safety dish called "impanata" - is one Frenchy dish that should have been forgotten; one of a handful of items that were a true letdown, and particularly bad on the night McAndrews was at Modo Mio.
When McAndrews is in the house, you'll know it. He's a monumental presence wrapped in chef's whites and a booming laugh, who usually roams this colorful little dining room with a glass of red vino, pausing only to snap back a shot of Sicilian CM grappa offered by the four red-cheeked gents in Hawaiian shirts at the table next to us.
"Salute, Peter!" they cry. Then they turn to offer us a shot (I smile as it warms my chest), and then our waiter, who does a little happy dance, then proceeds to drop the wrong dishes on our table. It wasn't the first time, either, as the service was overwhelmed, rushed, and scattered before the staff started drinking.
It's endearing in such a joyous place, though such flaws will hold this BYO back from its three-bell potential nearly as much as the kitchen's inconsistencies, which were most obvious with McAndrews away.
The eggplant parm was clumsily breaded and useless. The octopus was chewy - vs. a previous night's tender rendition sautéed with figs and sausage. McAndrews' night wasn't perfect, either, turning out an extremely overcooked rib-eye, chicken-fried and buried in a kitchen-sink mound of soppressata, fried egg, and provolone.
For the most part, though, I found this food to be thrilling and soulful, updated with a rustic edge rather than turning to precious. Rigatoni puttanesca is tossed with crumbles of tuna in spicy tomato sauce piquant with capers and olives. Light little ricotta gnocchi bob in a blush of tomato cream with crushed pistachios and lump crab. Fresh ribbons of tagliarini pasta tangle with lemony artichokes, mint, and shaved ricotta salata.
North Africa's imprint made its cameo when a tagine lid was lifted from a gorgeous fillet of mahimahi, perched above large-grain "cuscus" studded with clams and sausage in a tangy tomato broth, spiced with harissa, snappy with almonds, and sweet with raisins.
I almost didn't order those old standbys mussels and branzino, but Monsú made the familiar worthwhile, adding an addictively funky current of anchovies and oregano, amped by fennel and chile in the shellfish broth; a Sicilian bounty of oranges, olives, and fennel (and caciocavallo cheese!) boosted the branzino. Too bad our server left too many bones, but removed all that crunchy skin, while taking it apart.
Perhaps my favorite dish, though, was the goat "cooked in the style of the horse." It's an homage to one of Sicily's favorite meats (thankfully forbidden here), and the sublimely soft, feathery plumes of braised goat arrived in a mound of greens, tossed with gravy into crunchy fennel fronds layered with soft chickpea crepe and panfried caciocavallo cheese.
For dessert, there are freshly made cannoli (nice college try, not as good as Isgro's, but then whose are?), rich almond milk panna cotta, and airy fried San Giuseppe fritters dabbed with sweet ricotta cream, pistachio, and threads of candied orange.
It's enough to cheer even the most homesick new arrival from the old country. Then again, the denizens of old South Philly like the gents beside us do their part, too, offering us one last sip of grappa hospitality.
"Cent'anni!" cheered the waiter.
A hundred buonissimo years, indeed. It can go fast on this corner in South Philly.