At the hostess stand, they’re waiting for me when I walk in.
Not because I have reservations. Not because anyone recognizes me coming. Just because there’s nothing else for anyone to do—one table, a two-top, on the floor, no one else.
The server manning the stand (whom I will grow to love for her enthusiasm, bubbling happiness and unshakeable smile) asks if I have a reservation, just like she’ll ask everyone who comes in after me. I say no, same as nearly everyone else who comes through the door in the next couple hours. Blown in by an afternoon storm, all of us. Driven in by the heat, the wet, all the ugh of summer coming down on Philly at once.
She says that’s fine, glances behind her at all the vast nothing. “I think we can find you a seat.”
L’Anima (which means something like “the soul” in Italian) is a fishbowl of a restaurant—big, open, glassed in by windows on the first floor of a condo complex so new that it still feels shrink-wrapped, on the fluid, ragged border between Rittenhouse and GradHo. It’s the third opened by chef Gianluca Demontis and Rosemarie Tran, who also have Melograno in Center City and Fraschetta in Bryn Mawr. L’Anima is a BYO like those, Italian like those (Roman in this case), focused like those on substance over flash. A place to go for dinner, not necessarily to dine.
A table, bread, oil, menu. Octopus with potatoes, beans and olives (classic); a Caprese salad, elevated with roasted tomatoes and little slips of anchovy (less classic) laid on top of a thick slice of buffalo mozzarella, the whole thing ringed with basil oil. Those two dishes calibrate the boundaries of what the kitchen is doing at L’Anima. Not modernism, but not slavish, rote retreads, either. No, this is smart, approachable 2018 Italian: rustic but polished.
And so my arrosticini—cubed swordfish, skewered and stacked over bruschetta with salsa verde—is lovely and tender and just three degrees of class removed from charring fish over a campfire with a pointed stick. They’re not cut perfectly. The bits of lardo on the ends are gummy. But the carbonara that comes next is really nice — hand-rolled, chewy spaghettone in a sauce made from uni, egg and cheese, sprinkled with cracked peppercorns and crushed pistachio. It’s comforting and carefree in a way that says they could have made it more traditionally if they’d wanted to, but this version is what they wanted to do today.
A crowd follows me into L’Anima in twos and threes, arriving out of the heat and spitting rain, carrying bottles in paper bags, umbrellas, kids occasionally in tow. About half are return visitors, so thankful that they’ve got a restaurant on their block, in their neighborhood. Before long, the place is loud. Then loud-loud. I’m happy, too, till my fried shrimp arrive, which have artichoke hearts doodled with caper mayo. It sounds better than it tastes on the plate. The big crustaceans are kind of tasteless, mealy for their size, the caper mayo too weak to stand up. I don’t love it, but I’m still smiling.
It’s the ebullience of the place that makes its oddities and missteps less damaging. Attitude counts for a lot. So when I hear the server’s laugh booming out over the crowd noise as she pirouettes around a runner from the kitchen, and when I see a whole table lifting glasses to late friends coming through the door, I’m just happy to be a part of the fun — and no longer expecting anything greater or more perfect than dinner.
2 Stars — Come if you’re in the neighborhood
0 stars: stay away
★: come if you have no other options
★★: come if you’re in the neighborhood
★★★: come from anywhere in the region
★★★★: come from anywhere in the country