Taste: Reviews: Italian Revival

Does South Philly need another Italian restaurant? Actually, yes

In a gleaming open kitchen, against a backdrop of stainless steel, a woman in a black chef’s jacket works the hot line confidently, her titian ponytail swinging under a pink Philadelphia Eagles cap as she dishes up braised tripe and rabbit cacciatore in a storefront that once sold red velvet lampshades and telephone tables. Alison Barshak? No, we’re not in Blue Bell. We’re on the 1600 block of East Passyunk Avenue, the Walnut Street of South Philadelphia, where Lynn Marie Rinaldi opened Paradiso two blocks from the house where she grew up, two days after her 40th birthday, two years after she began overseeing the conversion of a vacant furniture store to a 168-seat restaurant and wine bar that brims with urban chic.

It wasn’t entirely smooth sailing. Banks turned her down for loans. The interior designer quit before construction began. Rinaldi forged ahead, emerged with humor intact, and ultimately named her place after the Italian restaurant in the darkly funny film Big Night. Any hint of kitsch ends there: Timpano, the grandiose meat-and-pasta pie so prominent in the movie, is nowhere to be found, because it would be at odds with Rinaldi’s cooking style, which is based on seasonal ingredients and uncomplicated preparations.

Paradiso’s decidedly upscale, jazz-on-weekends, Center City-meets-South Philly vibe is a reflection of the chef’s work life to date. She’s held dining room jobs at Felicia’s, Upstares at Varalli, and the Sands Casino Hotel in Atlantic City. For nine years, she owned the café at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, refining her skills during that time with classes at the Restaurant School. Friends from the art world tease Rinaldi about her bare dining room walls, but she prefers a minimalist look, relying on decorative sconces and small pendant lights hung with crystals that throw shadow patterns across the walls.

To establish her niche in a neighborhood crammed with Italian restaurants, Rinaldi revives some rarely offered classics, such as braised tripe in a peppery fresh tomato sauce with sliced carrots, which may be a touch funky for contemporary noses (those ordering it tend to be over 50), and rabbit cacciatore, or hunter-style, with finely chopped peppers and mushrooms. She keeps garlic to a minimum, even when cooking broccoli rabe. She also won’t do commonplace dishes, such as fried calamari or Caesar salad.

One of her standout offerings is octopus braised for two hours in white wine, olive oil and seasonings, then marinated in olive oil, lemon and sherry vinegar. Cut into equal lengths, the snow-white flesh and accompanying Yukon Gold potatoes look dramatic against an emerald backdrop of baby arugula. Rinaldi shows a keen eye for color in arranging roasted red and golden beets for a composed salad with gorgonzola and toasted pine nuts, jauntily crowned with a plume of mache.