Posted by: lisetta | July 19, 2012

Zeppoli Restaurant

Worpress notifies me that I’ve reached a milestone with 600 posts and shares this quote:

The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe. – Gustave Flaubert

With that, and a half dozen visits to Zeppoli over the past year, I decided it’s finally the right time to write up a review of my favorite restaurant ever. My first visit to Zeppoli last August was too foodgasmic to capture with words.  On subsequent visits, I composed the perfect reviews in my mind, yet never captured my thoughts in writing. When we visited last month with Francis, I snapped photos but posted none, opting, instead, to ‘like’ the ones that he posted to Facebook. After a week of mediocre food in the Catskills, choosing Zeppoli as our recovery meal was a no-brainer.

Zeppoli embodies the very best of Italian food culture: high quality ingredients, prepared with mastery, served in the most ‘accogliente‘ and unpretentious of venues. What else do real people want?

Chef-owner Joey Baldino is a dedicated artisan, mastering his craft through constant exploration of technique and flavor. Each meal in his restaurant reveals his sophisticated understanding of Italian food culture, where simple ingredients combined with mindful techniques become ethereal.

I first heard of Joey from my neighbor Barry who had met him while studying at Anna Tasca Lanza’s cooking school in Sicily. She came back from that trip with praise for a young chef who had worked at Vetri, the crown jewel of high-end Italian restaurants in Philadelphia. I’d forgotten about Barry’s story until I met Joey in the open kitchen at L’Oca, where he was working for about a year. We struck up an easy conversation about Italian cooking and culture, and when he mentioned that he’d studied Sicilian cooking in Italy, the stories clicked and the friendship began.

Joey’s culinary values began in his Italian family. His Sicilian grandparents owned a restaurant in South Philly, and his mother and aunts inspired him with a lifetime of fabulous family meals. Studying business at Temple, he knew he wanted to be back in the kitchen, so there he went, both working all over the city and beyond, with additional study at the French Culinary Institute and other smaller cooking schools. I admire his focused energy in the kitchen, his attention to detail, his kindness and respect for the other chefs (no matter how crazy they are), and his patience. With all he knows about Italian food, he never boasts nor draws attention to himself. This is why his friends do it for him.

The restaurant: it’s a simple yet elegant storefront on Collings Avenue in Collingswood, New Jersey. I don’t typically like going out to the suburbs, but the 20 minute ride from my place in University City is well worth it:

Inside, it’s only got 10-12 tables, seating 35 or so. When it opens at 5, its simple decor looks like this:

Inside view, from the corner table next to the open kitchen.

The meal starts off with a basket of traditional breads: homemade semolina bread and  foccaccia prepared every morning. He serves it with olives he marinates with lemon and herbs.

Zeppoli bread basket, with rosemary foccaccia.

Zeppoli bread basket, with tomato foccaccia and Blaine’s hand. Note behind the basket the glass of homemade lemonade,  scented with orange blossom water and star anise ~ an homage to the Arab influence on Sicilian cooking.

And then come the appetizers. All are perfect. Yes, I do mean that: Zeppoli’s food is perfect. It took five years of deconstructing and writing about Italian food in this blog to arrive at this moment. Authentic – and unpretentious – Italian food is here. Honestly. Get ready:

Grilled octopus salad, served over arugula.

The antipasto misto, moments before we devoured it (with audible moaning from everyone at the table).

Another angle of the antipasto misto, just in case you did not appreciate its beauty in the previous shot. It really does have over a dozen items on it, and, yes, every item showcases unique flavors and preparation. I cannot get enough of the antipasto misto, which we most recently ate as a meal.

Gamberetti e fagioli — whole shrimp sauteed with garlic, lemon, parsley and chili, served over beans. Joey knows how to use garlic as one ingredient of many, never overpowering. Bravo!

Finocchi salsiccia — house made fennel sausage served over broccoli rabe, an homage to the Italian-American classic. The slightly sweet yet savory sausage contains a perfect ratio of lean and fat, and is paired brilliantly with the bitter rabe (untainted by garlic).

Grilled sardines! Where am I? In a small town in Jersey, or the Mediterranean?

Panzanella Catania – tomato and bread salad with capers and Sicilian white anchovies. Love. He lightly marinates the tomatoes to bring out their natural flavors. The tomatoes in this image were from my garden last summer!

Insalata verde, half portion. Simple mixed greens with a lemon vinaigrette and shaved caciocavallo, a staple of ‘cucina povera’ throughout Southern Italy. It’s hard to describe caciocavallo since its flavor truly varies across regions. It’s best when it is neither salty nor rubbery. Some are fragrant and floral, others are slightly creamy. Joey’s Sicilian version is just right (of course).

Next up, the pasta: served in half or full portions, so that you could choose to eat a plate as a first course, as they do in Italy. Joey’s choices include a number of vegetarian options, true to the Sicilian tradition. Here are a few:

Pesto Trapanese – almond-pistachio pesto with a touch of citrus, served with Sicilian-style fusill pasta. The only pasta on Joey’s menu named by its sauce. You’ll know why if you try it. And that empty carafe of lemonade? Mine was the only glass left by the time the pasta course arrived. Try as we might, we always manage to drink it all by the end of the second course.

A sample of Gnocchi alla Argentiera – ricotta and spinach gnocchi served with brown butter sage and shaved caciocavallo. The gnocchi are light yet rich, with neither the spinach nor the ricotta privileged. The ‘buerre noisette’ is actually nutty; not at all slimy like so many ill-executed butter sauces. I’ve been told that the trick to doing this at home is using high quality butter and clarifying it before browning it.

Spaghetti whose name I no longer recall, sadly. It was prepared with bread crumbs and some sort of fish. Don’t let my memory failure stop you from imagining how delicious it was.

Another shot of pesto trapanese, in better light. Note the difference in pasta shape, as if it matters.

In most of our visits to Zeppoli, we’ve ordered appetizers and pasta, but the two entrees I’ve tasted merit mention:

Sicilian Fisherman Stew — mixed seafood with saffron and Moroccan cous cous. You’ll want to drink the broth when you’re through with the fish. Some Italian friends from the north insist that Sicily really isn’t Italy, but Africa … as if there were something wrong with that.

Rabbit! Stewed with tomatoes and served with herb roasted potatoes. So tender and tasty, I forget for a moment that I typically claim to be a vegetarian. The color in this iPhone photo is a bit off; believe me when I tell you that it is perfect in person. If you’ve never tried rabbit, start here.

I’ve tasted almost all of the house-made desserts on the menu, but typically arrive at them when the light is no longer good enough for photographs from the iPhone! Drat. Do I describe with words the light and airy zeppole served with chocolate and hazlenut sauce? or the three cannulicchi whose pastry and filing neither feels fried nor excessively sweet? or the house-made gelato, or the torta di limone he taught me to make years ago? Perhaps I’ll save for the next review more detailed descriptions. For now, behold a teaser:

Zeppoli’s torta with apricot: its vanilla undertones blend brilliantly with the sweet yet tart apricots.

Since I arrived in Philadelphia eleven years ago, I’ve spent much time and energy trying to create a feeling of “home” through writing about Italian food culture. I typically deconstruct with frustration the amateur execution or obscene pretensions of many “Italian” restaurants this city holds dear. Zeppoli illumines the state of consciousness I’d lost touch with yet have been seeking for years. As such, it is both an answer to my koan and a poetic transition to my new home in Manhattan. If you know what Italian food is supposed to taste like, you’ll love Zeppoli. Trust me.

Blaine digs up the rosemary plant from our garden in University City ….

… and transplants it (and thyme) in Zeppoli’s newly constructed raised beds. I can think of no better place for them.

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Responses

  1. Lisetta! As you know, I’ve been absent from the blogs for nearly a year, and tonight I just randomly picked a blogging friend to check up on. FABULOUS post. With every photo, my mouth watered more and more. I miss this!


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