What to Know Before You Go: Cash only, reservations recommended for parties of six or more.
Buy a Bottle At: 29 S. 11th St., Philadelphia.
It’s difficult to overstate the simple elegance of Gnocchi. There’s nothing overdone about this restaurant, nothing gimmicky. The space itself is intimate, and the lighting is dark enough to make anyone look nice. And this is a good thing, because chances are that by the end of your dinner, you’ll have some sort of sauce on your shirt. It tends to happen here: The food is so well prepared, so honest, that you’ll have a hard time paying attention to trifling little annoyances like manners. Try the vitello alla limone, a delicious dish of veal sautÃ©ed with shiitake mushrooms, white wine and lemon. Or the linguine fra diavolo, a pleasantly spicy dish with lump crabmeat and jumbo shrimp. And as for the eponymous gnocchi? It’s every bit as good as you’d hope, especially the gnocchi tre formaggio, served in a three-cheese Alfredo sauce with radicchio, roasted peppers and shiitake mushrooms. Don’t even try to avoid overeating-it’s a foregone conclusion that you will. And the truth is, you’ll be happy you did.
613 E. Passyunk Ave., Philadelphia, 215.592.8300.
What to Know Before You Go: Credit cards accepted.
Buy a Bottle At: 1218 Chestnut St., Philadelphia.
Charles Plaza is proof that vegetarian cooking can be exciting in its conception, beautiful in its presentation and delicious in its execution. Not everything on the menu is vegetarian, but the highlights of it tend to fall into that category. Sweet and sour “pork,” for example, is actually made of walnuts, and while it didn’t really taste like it was cut from a pig, it was wonderfully flavorful in its own right. Seasonal vegetables on pan-fried wheat noodles were accompanied by a fragrant brown sauce, and the deep, almost meaty richness of it set the perfectly cooked vegetables into sharp relief. But the revelation of the meal was the hot and sour soup, which was like a little island of flavor in a city otherwise awash in muddled, somewhat depressing versions of it. This soup was both spicy and sour and filled with a lovely combination of vegetables, tofu and mushrooms. Charles himself is there most nights, and he may be the most charismatic restaurateur in Chinatown. He takes so much pride in his food that he even makes his own duck sauce. It was a thousand times more interesting than that orange sugar-goop most places serve, and when I asked Charles how he made it, he gave me the recipe, including the “secret” ingredient. I could tell you what it is, but I wouldn’t be doing you any favors. Instead, you’re much better off heading over to Charles Plaza yourself, ordering with heart-healthy abandon, and not feeling like a blob afterward.
234 – 236 N. 10th St., Philadelphia, 215.829.4383.
What to Know Before You Go: Cash only, reservations recommended.
Buy a Bottle At: 724 South St., Philadelphia.
This is a tale of two restaurants. When Branzino is good, and when everything is going smoothly in the kitchen, the food is quite nice. I recently had the Insalata Finocchio, which was a lovely plate of shaved fennel and radicchio in a citrus vinaigrette. It was flavorful and refreshing and did exactly what a salad should: It made me hungry for more. And the bocatini alla matrigiano (that’s their spelling; you may know it better as bucatini all’amatriciana) was rich with pancetta and onions, but not overwhelming, as the dish can sometimes get. But then there are the times-and there have been more than a few-when my meal was less than stellar. The pappardelle al lepre, the centerpiece of which was a rabbit ragu with red wine and rosemary, had been simmered too long and, as a result, the rabbit was dry. And the Caesar salad was decent, but nothing more. So while you will get a good meal at Branzino if you happen to be there on the right night, you also run the risk of getting a mediocre one. And in this neighborhood, there are just too many other consistent Italian restaurants to take that chance.
261 S. 17th St., Philadelphia, 215.790.0103.
Lakeside Chinese Deli
What to Know Before You Go: Cash only.
Buy a Bottle At: 1218 Chestnut St., Philadelphia.
I had walked past Lakeside Chinese Deli dozens of times, but I’d never gone in to eat. Maybe it had something to do with the storefront itself, which is so subtle as to be almost invisible. Or maybe it was because no one ever really talks about Lakeside. Whatever the reason, it turns out I’d been passing by one of the true gems of Chinatown. The dim sum is fabulous, and it’s as authentic as you’re likely to find anywhere in the city. The steamed roast pork bun is pillowy and slightly sweet, and the filling tastes like some sort of Chinese version of pulled honey-pork. The chiu chow shrimp roll was a textural blockbuster, the crunch of chopped water chestnuts perfectly offsetting silky chunks of shrimp. And while it may be listed under the dim sum, the crispy sesame ball with bean paste is the best dessert-style dish I’ve ever had in Chinatown. Lakeside Chinese Deli is proof that appearances can be deceiving. I only wish I’d given it a try years ago. I’ve been missing out on something special.
207 N. 9th St., Philadelphia, 215.925.3288.
What to Know Before You Go: Credit cards accepted, outside seating available.
Buy a Bottle At: 1107 Walnut St., Philadelphia.
The Philadelphia pizza scene is pretty grim. For some reason, the city that gave the world the cheesesteak can’t seem to get its act together when it comes to pizza. The classic Philly pie is soggy, lifeless, a bit on the spongy side, undercooked by a solid three minutes and topped with flavorless sauce and a congealed layer of mozzarella-from-the-bag. Sure, there are a few standouts, but not everyone lives near Tacconelli’s, SoHo or Joe’s. So in the context of Philadelphia as a whole, the pizza at Top Tomato isn’t bad. The crust is generally sturdy, the sauce relatively flavorful and the cheese actually possessed of some modicum of texture. The menu lists 35 different kinds of pizza, and they run the gamut from the Vegetarian Delight with green peppers, onions, black olives and mushrooms to the Jambalaya, a crazy assemblage of sausage, chicken, shrimp, mozzarrella, garlic and hot sauce. The White Spinach pizza is a highlight: The ricotta, Romano, mozzarella and garlic make it a pretty lively pie. But the Jersey Tomato Pie, which is a pizza with melted mozzarrella topped with dollops of olive oil and tomato sauce, is a bit on the bland side. When it comes to Top Tomato, context is everything.
1107 Walnut St., Philadelphia, 215.592.8242; www.toptomatopizza.com
At AroundPhilly.com, we only post reviews of the restaurants at which I have a positive experience. I visit many of them, and the sub-par ones don’t make the cut. This way, you don’t waste your time reading about not-so-good restaurants when you visit the site.
Click here to visit the Archives section for previous installments of the “Aroundphilly.com Ultimate BYOB Guide.”