A server who gets her customers laughing has them right where she wants them, but the bartender at Zavino had an unfair advantage on a recent Monday afternoon.
“Would you like a table?” she asked as I strolled in.
“Maybe I’ll just sit at the bar,” I said.
“Okay,” she replied brightly, filling a water glass as I parked my backside. “There’s just one thing you should know. Our pizza oven isn’t working. So everything from here down”—she held her hand across the middle of the menu—“isn’t available at the moment.”
“You had me at isn’t working,” I answered—or would have, if my wit were quicker. As it’s not, I chuckled, took in an explanation about weird wiring that occasionally knocks the za out of Zavino, and ordered what I’d come for in the first place. Because truth be told, the pizza at Zavino doesn’t really work for me no matter how hot the oven is—but the pasta is another story entirely.
Or was, at any rate. When Zavino opened in 2010 with Vetri alum Steve Gonzalez in charge of the kitchen, noodles were where the real action was. Back then—when Stella and Slice were stoking hopes of a pizza renaissance, but before Pizza Brain and Pitruco and Nomad pushed it over the tipping point—Zavino struck me as being notable for a rather modest achievement: good pizza at a place where the pizza was only the third- or fourth-best reason to go.
Gonzalez rolled his pasta sheets a thin as a one-percenter’s finest handkerchief, and seven or eight bucks could buy you a small plate of some ethereal ravioli and capellini. The other draws included homemade sodas, a wine list full of funky European curiosities, and a price point that was hard to beat on 13th Street.
But Gonzalez lasted all of nine months, and while Zavino continues to thrive—a second location is slated to open near Drexel this summer or fall—it does so as a different beast.
The pizza (the oven was cranking on another day) is much as I remember: a little spongier than I favor, with cheese that slips around a little too freely, but topped with lovely stuff—especially the veal-and-ricotta micro meatballs, which are so tender I want to call them fluffy. But the pasta is nothing like it once was. Aside from a tidy pile of gnocchi that melted on the tongue as readily as the pan-burst cherry tomatoes they were sauced with, the rolled dough has taken a rustic turn that made me miss the olden days. The fettuccini, tossed with a homestyle pork ragu and coarsely grated parmesan, was awfully thick. And that went double for the ravioli—or, at any rate, for their borders, where the joined sheets weren’t so much al dente as just plain tough.
The wine program has also veered in a more plebian direction. A bar that used to be a staging ground for idiosyncratic adventures—think Sicily, by way of a single-varietal Nerello Mascalese—now stocks the standard Cab-Malbec-Pinot lineup. The cocktail end of things retains some personality—but it’s the personality of a single distiller, Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. I’m glad I finally got around to tasting their Sage, which the bartender kindly let me sample neat. But Zavino’s Tipsy Grandma (which heaps lemongrass simple syrup on top of its concentrated herbal aromatics), was like sipping on bad perfume.
At least my poor choice didn’t cost me much. Remember the $8 cocktail? It survives here (and not just at happy hour), along with the $8 glass of wine. Zavino still competes well on price—with the curious exception of its pizza, which used to fetch $8-$13 for a circa-10-inch pie but now commands (but doesn’t justify) $13-$16.
Nevertheless, Zavino retains a few of its original charms. The charcuterie is still solid, and beautifully presented. A seasonal vegetable plate was an unusually valiant late-winter effort—featuring roasted parsnips, carrots, beets, cauliflower and squash dressed with a refreshing mint-shallot vinaigrette. And a salad of lovingly picked baby kale leaves surpassed the expectations set by what, at first, seemed like a skimpy scattering of pumpkin seeds and butternut squash chips. Those chips had flavor to burn, and a well-balanced lemon vinaigrette was all the kale needed. The knack for making simplicity click is as exceptional as it is unsung.
But on the whole, Zavino has settled into, or perhaps settled for, the realm of the ordinary.