Taste: Reviews: Italian Revival

Does South Philly need another Italian restaurant? Actually, yes

The grilled tuna is another success, visually and otherwise. Triangular pieces with pink rare centers are propped on an angle against minimally sautéed shaved fennel — a tangle of ribbons that resembles translucent fettuccine, punctuated with blood orange slices for color and sweetness. The whole grilled fish, usually branzino, is presented in its entirety before being deftly filleted tableside and served with roasted Yukon Gold potatoes and broccoli rabe. Braised dishes will probably leave the menu come spring, and I will regret the passing of the osso buco with pureed white beans, served with its own slender marrow fork, topped by a lemony gremolata with pine nuts that cuts some of the richness.

Two dishes that typically appear on Rinaldi’s Thanksgiving table have landed on her menu. Crespelle, or house-made crepes, bundle up a generous amount of ricotta and pureed roasted butternut squash with enough cinnamon and nutmeg to qualify as a dessert, even though it’s served with fresh tomato sauce. It’s too sweet for my taste. Rice pudding, made with arborio rice, may be the best version in all Philadelphia, made with milk and heavy cream, orange zest, dried sour cherries, cinnamon and vanilla bean.

The wine list bears mentioning. Sommelier Jeffrey DiMaio, a veteran of Specchio at the Borgata, Rat’s and the Dilworthtown Inn, allows it to range all over Italy, including Sardinia and Sicily, but his roster is by no means Euro-centric: Wines from Australia and New Zealand are represented, as are bottles from Oregon and New York State. The dapper DiMaio is also your personal tour guide to the cheese cart, stocked by Di Bruno’s.

Paradiso already feels like a mature restaurant, largely because Rinaldi hired seasoned professionals like DiMaio to work the dining room. Her waiters have a sixth sense for anticipating what a table needs, a rare commodity in Philadelphia’s ever-expanding restaurant scene.

The small, serious Italian restaurant in Big Night struggles to survive because its customers are clueless — they don’t appreciate the gifted chef; they go elsewhere when he refuses to serve risotto with a side of spaghetti. One pivotal evening ultimately decides the fate of the fictional Paradise. With a more enlightened customer base than its cinematic namesake, Paradiso should be able to withhold Caesar salad and fried calamari, and still have many nights ahead to prove its worth.