It sounds like a task Donald Trump would dream up for the Apprentice contestant everyone hates: Rent a storefront in a strip mall whose street address rings up faulty directions on Google Maps; buy a giant oven heated by wood, gas and infrared heat; then woo suburban diners with a small-plates menu whose signature dish is red mullet.
But Toto Schiavone is nobody’s apprentice, and Radice, the restaurant he opened in July with chef Donna Ewanciw (his longtime associate at Moonstruck in Fox Chase), is no gag. Set in a handsome strip mall — but a strip mall nonetheless — it’s a paean to Italian hearth cooking and to Schiavone’s birthplace, a seaside village in Calabria memorialized in a mural above the bar.
Aside from that homage, Radice (Italian for “root”) is conspicuously unadorned, as if to underscore that what really matters is the oven. More than three-quarters of Ewanciw’s menu passes through it, primarily in clay pots. She shuttles them through different temperature zones, gently coddling meat and fish to develop subtle layers of flavor before sliding them closer to the wood coals to crisp the edges. It’s a homey, deeply satisfying style of cooking.
Plump raisins and vinegar-touched onions meld into a sweet-and-sour counterpoint to fresh sardines, mellowed by roasted cauliflower. A rustic soffritto of shiitakes and ceci beans proves celery can shine when the crunch is cooked out of it. And I’d forgotten how refreshing grapes can be, especially on a sausage pizza, even atop a forgettable crust.
Not everything comes out of the oven. In a salad worth every penny of its $11 price tag, sweet fig vincotto and Crotonese, a citrusy sheep’s-milk cheese, permeated a nest of arugula crowned with crispy ribbons of sautéed prosciutto. There’s superb salumi. That rose-skinned mullet, fresh from Ionian waters, comes on a lemony bed of leek-studded lentils ideally suited to one of the most assertive white-fleshed fish around. And Ewanciw’s cannoli — limoncello-infused ricotta packed into delicate pistachio tuiles — are without equal.
There were disappointments: fishy scallop arancini; bland meatballs. Servers were overstretched by the weekend crowd, and the bartender needed reminding that an old-fashioned takes bitters.
Yet there’s something about Radice that makes those shortcomings fade in the brighter light of a spirit not often found in strip malls: authentic hospitality.