Bright Lights, Big City: Palladino’s Reviewed
With all due consideration for sore thumbs and Kim Kardashian’s badonka-donk, nothing sticks out from its surroundings quite like Palladino’s on Passyunk.
The Italian chophouse rears up over the Avenue’s Broad Street gateway like a wedge of layer cake iced by an architectural prankster. Its banded black and white facade serves up an allusion to the medieval tower of Siena’s Duomo atop the Streamline Moderne curve of a sidewalk-sheltering hip roof, and the whole thing is capped off with a sky-scraping signboard that broadcasts the restaurateur’s name in lipstick red.
And you can hear Luke Palladino’s Philadelphia debut from nearly as far away as you can see it. Saxophone-rock solos and Super-tramp reverberate on the covered curb with a brashness compounded inside by crowds that can be as boisterous on a Wednesday evening as on a Saturday night. You can take a chef out of Atlantic City, but apparently you can’t take Atlantic City out of this chef.
From the $75 porterhouse-for-two to the quartet of flat-screen TVs above the bar and in the dining room that are looping helicopter footage of Italy, this is not your ramp-pickling, home-brewing, artisanal-mustachioed nephew’s P’yunk. Nor is it your wine-collecting Main Line doctor’s, for that matter. Philadelphia’s hottest restaurant row caters to a pretty wide swath at this point, but this place is something new.
“I’ve been in the Atlantic City market for 15 years now,” Palladino says. “And our clientele, even in winter, is mostly Philadelphians.” So why not follow them back to the city? High rents in Center City pushed his search to the south, along with the Passyunk Avenue Revitalization Corporation, which is now his landlord.
The 80-seat restaurant is an intriguing choice of flagship for an avenue mostly defined by small-scale operations. I’m betting someone at PARC tasted Luke’s focacciadi Recco. His version of the unleavened flat-bread (inspired by the same Genoese restaurant, Manuelina, after which Nancy Silverton modeled her cult favorite at L.A.’s Chi Spacca) is instantly one of the most soulful pleasures in Philadelphia dining. Stuffed with creamy, tangy stracchino cheese that half-melts into pliant dough warped with crackly brick-oven blisters, it showcases this kitchen at its simplest and best. Palladino says he first started experimenting with it in 2008 but didn’t have the right oven to pull it off until now. He has only authorized a couple other cooks to make it, and the practice shows.
Palladino’s has more to recommend it. Stecchini Genovese, a skewer combining sweetbreads, a mortadella cube, a truffled veal meatball and a rooster’s comb, all deep-fried, is a stand out bar snack—even if its mostarda-aioli dip erred on the side of sweetness. Crisp-edged crespelle carried deeply woodsy cargoes of seared mushrooms folded with tallegio and béchamel. Those who love creamed spinach will throw it under the bus the second they taste the rich Tuscan kale parmigiana here—one of several side dishes (along with a mortadella-and-prosciutto-speckled potato gâteau and kale-walnut-farro risotto) that elevate Palladino’s steakhouse element above its tired American brethren.
That pricey porterhouse carried a stroger scent of wood smoke than any other log-fired oven imparts around here, and so did a very rustic pair of lamb shoulder chops. But brash steak sauces overwhelmed the winning interplay of smoke and meat. A black garlic-porcini butter was the best of the bunch, though even it was more of a clash with than a complement to the overachieving main attraction.
I wanted to like Palladino’s porcini pappardelle more—and might have, if the horseradish had packed a little more punch. And both daily pasta specials were flat-out flops: ultra-garlicky angel hair with flavorless fiddleheads one night, and well-made gnocchi dressed with a thin, under-seasoned fava sauce plus a miser’s allotment of asparagus tips on another. But add casonsei to your pasta vocabulary; these chewy-edged candy-wrapper dumplings packed with sweet beets and smoked ricotta are yummy enough to reprise at dessert (along with Palladino’s uncommonly delicate cannoli).
The wine list covers a lot of ground, though prices cluster around Philly’s dismal triple-retail norm and sometimes reach quadruple. Healthy six-ounce pours make by-the-glass offerings a better proposition. A boozy but well-balanced Corpse Reviver cocktail was a credit to Palladino’s bar—but it would take more than that to lure me back for another hour of dad rock and cheesy Italy-by-air DVDs.
Throw in a broad wheel of focaccia di Recco and those roasted-beet casonsei, though, and now we’re talking. Palladino’s may not be what I have in mind when I point my compass toward Passyunk, but some of its charms are worth seeking out just the same.
2.5 Stars – Good to Excellent
Originally published in the June 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine.