In an era when chefs face off on television to see who can make a meal featuring string cheese, jicama and gingersnaps in each of three courses, interrupting the watercooler recap with a plug for straight-ahead Italian food can brand you with the foodie equivalent of the mark of Cain. Even leaving kitsch and Chopped aside, these are heady days for restaurant-goers. From ham-flavored foam to edible gin paper, there are just so many new things to try that praising a simple bowl of pasta can seem like shouting into the whirlwind.
Which is why I broach the subject of Joey Baldino’s cooking at Zeppoli with a certain dread. The South Philly native has gone to Collingswood with a menu of dishes a thousand cooks have cooked a million times before: Tagliatelle with lemon and bottarga. Spinach-and-ricotta gnocchi in brown butter. Fennel sausage with broccoli rabe. And his renditions of these classics, though by no means austere, are neither deconstructed nor molecularly manipulated nor anything else besides what they’ve always been.
There is a difference here, though, and it’s the only one that matters: Baldino does them better than 999 of those other cooks.
Well, maybe 998. The 33-year-old’s last job was as chef de cuisine at Vetri, where the boss isn’t exactly an also-ran. But whatever the case, Zeppoli—whose aims are as simple as its white lace curtains and distressed wood tables—is executing on a level matched by few restaurants on either side of the Walt Whitman.
Those silken tangles of tagliatelle, for example, conjure fantasies of an orchard at the edge of a fishermen’s colony—the lemon zest and juice melding with the cured roe’s briny umami wallop, melding in turn with sparingly buttered starches that shine with citrus but cloak its acidity. A late-summer panzanella was textbook but transporting: offering superior tomatoes, oversize croutons derived from house-made bread, and white anchovy fillets both mellow and pure. Baldino’s whole fishes—bronzino one night, orata on a luckier one—were as flawless as the grilled zucchini and artichoke hearts astride them; his Sicilian stew was a dark melody of shellfish stock and saffron, shrimp and crisp-edged swordfish.
From the sweet-and-sour carrots on the antipasti plate to a cool-but-not-chilly almond-milk biancomangiare for dessert, the seasoning here was always in balance, the temperatures just right. And then, with the modest bill, came sticky struffoli—honeyed pebbles with no balance, no subtlety. So the meal ended with a reminder: While every other dish likewise risked banality, each transcended it instead.