Ultimate BYOB Guide

Ristorante Tre Scalini

What to Know Before You Go: Credit cards accepted.
Buy a Bottle At: 29 S. 11th St., Philadelphia.

Growing up in the ‘burbs, it always seemed like a big deal to come into the city with my family and have dinner at a South Philly Italian restaurant. I remember the meals as being so flavorful that they remain benchmarks, even now, in my gustatory life. It’s rare, of course, that present experience ever really lives up to our memories of the past, and I cannot count the number of meals I’ve had over the years in this part of the city that fell far short of what I had hoped for. Which is exactly what made Tre Scalini so unique. Course after course brought me back to my youth, to a time when all the flavors of a meal seemed to pop, to come alive in my mouth and dance. A special appetizer of figs with prosciutto and generous slices of Parmigiano cheese was sweet, salty, and perfectly balanced. Homemade spaghetti con vongole in garlic and olive oil had me breathing fire for days. The spaghetti was cooked to a gorgeous al dente texture, the tiny clams were sweet as could be, and the sauce was so simple and elegant that I mopped up most of it with bread. As a result, I was relegated to the living room that night because my poor wife couldn’t stand the garlic-breath that resulted. (It was worth it…and we have a comfortable couch.) Even the tiramisu was delicious. Spongy, moist and not too sweet, it brought the meal to a brilliant close. For the first time in years, reality and memory converged, and it happened on a quiet street corner in South Philly.

1533 S. 11th St., 215.551.3870.

Ristorante Pesto

What to Know Before You Go: Credit cards accepted.
Buy a Bottle At: 1940 S. Columbus Blvd., Philadelphia.

I think I was the only non-regular in the restaurant during a recent visit to Pesto. This, of course, was a good omen. It implied that the food was tasty enough to make people want to come back again. But it also meant that I felt a bit like the new student in the middle-school cafeteria that tries to sit with the cool kids during lunch on his first day. Everyone was friendly, of course, but I was definitely not part of the “scene.” As for the food, it was very good without being great, but I can still see why customers could quickly become regulars. It was basic, it was hearty and it was honest – rare commodities in these days of high-concept über-restaurants. The Caesar salad was a very good rendition of the standard, with a particularly tangy dressing and excellent homemade croutons. The complimentary dish of balsamic-marinated carrots and pesto-potato salad provided excellent noshing between courses. And the bucatini amatriciana was robustly flavored, though the pasta was a bit overcooked. Pesto is a bit far from my neighborhood to justify becoming a regular, but if you’ve never been there before, it’s worth a try. Plus, if you get lucky, you may even find a parking spot, like I did, in the middle lane of Broad Street. There’s nothing more authentically South Philly than that, and if that doesn’t make you feel like one of the cool kids then nothing will.

1915 S. Broad St., 215.336.8380.

Chaleo

What to Know Before You Go: Credit cards accepted.
Buy a Bottle At: 724 South St., Philadelphia.

The area around South Street below 10th Street is a bit like Forrest Gump’s proverbial box of chocolates: You never know what you’re going to find. Falafel shops abut piercing emporiums. Goth kids rage against “the man” while suburban dads (who likely work for “the man,” or, in some cases, aspire to one day be “the man”) saunter down the street with their toddlers in tow. And quiet, simple restaurants like Chaleo seem to pop up out of nowhere, Oasis-like, from the surrounding culinary desert. There’s nothing fancy here, but the food is well prepared, appropriately spicy, and satisfying. Papaya salad, or som tum, featured a nicely balanced palette of flavors that included tomato, lime juice, green beans and crushed peanuts. The pad see-ew, a dish of flat, wide rice noodles that had been sautéed in a sweet soy sauce with beef and Chinese broccoli, was deeply flavored and filling. I was too stuffed for dessert, so I decided to wash it all down with the remnants of the Thai iced tea I had ordered. The half-and-half and generous scoops of sugar that had been added negated any of the tea’s healthful effects but I didn’t really care. It cooled the fire in my mouth from the heat of the dishes and brought the meal to a lovely close.

700 – 702 S. Fifth St., 215.592.4622.

Ristorante Mezza Luna

What to Know Before You Go: Credits cards accepted, reservations recommended
Buy a Bottle At: 724 South St., Philadelphia.

On a recent lunchtime visit, my dining companion and I were the only non-Italian speakers in the place. This is always a good sign – restaurants in Chinatown, for example, are generally judged not by the quality of their dim sum but by the number of native Mandarin speakers in the joint. So why shouldn’t the same metric be applied to Italian restaurants? Granted, there was only one other table occupied, but it was a Friday in August. More sensible people were probably already on their way down the Shore. We, on the other hand, were gorging ourselves on a bowl of mussels with garlic, hot pepper and fresh tomatoes, all of it swimming in a light but flavorful broth. The penne caprese was good, too. The pasta was cooked al dente and served with fresh tomatoes, basil, and hunks of mozzarella in a pink-hued white-wine sauce. It was a perfect afternoon pasta dish. Tasty enough to satisfy after a lousy breakfast six hours earlier, light enough not to weigh me down too much for the rest of the afternoon, but still a big enough portion to assure that I’d get a nice, hour-long pasta nap when I got home. (And for the sake of journalistic accuracy, I did, indeed, sleep like a baby.) For dessert, the cannoli was a standout. The ricotta filling was sweet but not cloying, and the shell was as crisp as any I’ve had in a very long time. So though I have no idea what the folks at the table behind me were talking about as they yammered on in their mellifluous Italian, I’d guess that it had something to do with the consistently solid preparations coming out of the kitchen. Indeed, I’d take a meal at Mezza Luna over a trip to the Shore any day. But that’s just me.

763 S. 8th St., 215.627.4705.

Tandoor India

What to Know Before You Go: Credit cards accepted.
Buy a Bottle At: 4049 Market St., Philadelphia.

If one more friend comes back from Vegas and tells me how much I’d love all the “fabulous” buffets, there’s a good chance I’ll lose it and go Michael Douglas (circa Falling Down) on him. So, for the record, if any of this column’s readers know of a local restaurant that serves food that is both (a) buffet-style and (b) edible, I invite you to email me with the address and phone number. Because in my experience, a buffet-which I believe is derived from the Old French work for “heartburn-inducing gluttony”-is nothing more than an excuse for a lazy chef to underachieve and for an already overfed American public to gorge themselves on food that tastes, only occasionally, like food. This is borne out brilliantly at Tandoor India. The naan was tough. The vegetable pakora, or deep-fried vegetables, were tasty but by the time I got to them they were painfully soggy. Saag Paneer was better, which makes sense. Even a buffet table can’t ruin the texture of minced, cooked spinach. My main problem, though, was the kitchen’s seeming aversion to any sort of heat or spice. Indian food doesn’t have to be overwhelmingly spicy; it does, however, have to be flavorful. The fact that most of the items on this buffet were neither is unacceptable. So yet again, I’ve been proven right: When faced with the choice of an inexpensive buffet or a slightly more-expensive menu, you’re almost always better off dropping a few extra dollars. It will be money well spent. (Note: I’ll be returning to Tandoor India to sample cooked-to-order food, and will report back with my findings.)

106 S. 40th St., 215.222.5191.

AroundPhilly Staff

When we're not browsing Reddit or preparing TPS reports, the Aroundphilly.com staff likes to bring you freshly-sliced internets for your viewing pleasure. If you have an idea for an article or really awesome photos of Nabi, send us an email at editorial@aycmedia.com.

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