I must start nearly at the beginning. Nicholas Nastasi and I were sworn in as Philadelphia Assistant District Attorneys before gentle and wise Judge Canuso in 1968. Our group picture, taken that day, shows the gleaming visage of Arlen Specter overseeing our admission to his staff. Nick remains the handsomest of the legal lot, and his recent opening of an Italian Market eatery is no surprise to anyone. Cooking professionally has always been this noted defense attorney’s dream.
A photogravure of his parents’ wedding picture hangs alongside his grandparents’ and great-grand-parents’ portraits, framed prominently so as to be essential in our presence. For it is from his family (mostly his mother Nina’s daily breakfasts, lunches and dinners) that Nick learned the recipes and cooking techniques of Messina (San Pier Niceto village) that have jumped generations onto the menu at this collaboration of authentic Sicilian cuisine.
Nick greets everyone warmly as if he were about to pick a jury. He seats you; he “voir dires” your culinary inclinations and expectations; he helps you order, makes closing arguments and then supervises his chef (or cooks your meal himself) in a bustling open rear stainless-steel silver kitchen.
If local Pea Soup ($6) is the “zuppa del giorno,” promptly enter an order. The emerald broth is served in a steaming large white coffee cup. “The peas are local,” states Nick with pride, and as if sworn to tell the truth, knowing it to be so because he gardens and guards the restaurant’s vegetables and herbs himself. The soup is opaque and brawny with pancetta. A few spoonfuls endear your heart to its freshness while your lips remain sticky enough to lick. A hint of mint spurts from a drowned, hidden leaf, and the soupspoon is forgotten in favor of sipping eagerly and directly from the cup. “Peas of mind” is pervasive.
Nor can you refrain from Roasted Cubanelle Peppers ($7) stuffed with bread crumbs and Italian herbs. Well-oiled, skinned, sautéed green pepper strands, just wide enough to be shamelessly covered in basil and cheese-infused crumblings, appear to beg you to undress and devour them. Each mouthful is verdant, softly crusty and faintly redolent of garlic. You wish not to swallow, and allow the mélange to linger and languish.
Notwithstanding all of the above, imported pasta is the specialty here. You’ve never had better Ricotta Malfati ($18), or Sacchetti Pasta Purses ($19). The former are six ricotta-filled pillows that could only have been made by prestidigitation. Whether pure white or with spinach (best to order three apiece), each pillow seems to rise on its own, levitating toward your trembling utensil. Alighted by basil and rosemary, and soaked in a golden saffron butter sauce, the puffy Malfati gush luxuriously between your cheeks, and then disappear like a magician’s trick: with “smirk and murmurs.”
The Sacchetti are purses you’d swear were manufactured by Fendi. They are imported little sacks of pasta, formed al dente to look like tiny tony purses. Each is brimming and overflowing with glutinous gorgonzola and finely ground walnuts, and then suffused in a cream sauce exulting with fresh green fava beans. Silken on your tongue, slippery as they pass down your throat, you are made to gasp. One’s eyes dilate in delight.
Someone of capacious belly should invite the Osso Buca di Porco ($29) platter to the table. Nick usually serves this himself as it seems too heavy for any one waitperson to lift. The pork shank has a handle of bone from which emerges a brontosaurus-sized thigh sweating with meat so tender and juicy, you are tempted to first take its Jurassic picture to prove its existence to others. Swarthy morsels are pulled from the bone by the slightest quivering touch of a knife. The tastes of gravy and seasonings tumble from Osso’s girth. And Nick always provides in a feigned wily whisper (especially if you’re an attorney), “I gave you the biggest one.” The huge oval platter is supplemented with a monstrous mound of risotto in the shadow of, and sweltering in “di Porco” broth. As added smoky flavor, thickly diced porcini mushroom caps abound therein.
Italian opera is played pianissimo throughout the meal in the small, homey first floor dining room. Nearby South Philly neighbors are omnipresent, and conversations cross tables with lively banter. When you leave, head a few feet south and look over your shoulder, back to get a full view of the mural of Frank Rizzo. He seems to wink and sternly smile at you, just as he had done when he passed the District Attorney’s Office at 666 City Hall in 1968.
|"QUO SPINOSIOR FRAGRANTIOR"|
|Copyright 2011 Richard Max Bockol, Esq.||Back|