Italian Restaurants: The 2009 Philly Mag 50

Birchrunville Store Cafe
Birchrunville | French-Italian | Entrées: $13-$20
Ranking: 27 • Last Year’s Ranking: 13
To say this Chester County BYO has a loyal following is an understatement. Never before have we seen multiple diners making reservations for their next meals before their entrées even arrive. And it’s not like Birchrunville is convenient: Dinner is only served Wednesday through Saturday, there are only two seatings on weekends, they don’t accept credit cards (good luck finding the nearest ATM), and the restaurant is off the beaten path even for nearby residents. But after eating here, we get that it all adds up to quirky charm and a heartfelt dining experience. The menu options are few, but slight spins on classics—beet-and-goat-cheese salad is enlivened with breasola and mâche; a well-cooked Chilean sea bass gets a cabernet sauvignon sauce—and a few surprises, like boar, are, like the clientele, pleasantly approachable. Order: The moist, warm butterscotch cake. 1403 Hollow Road, Birchrunville, 610-827-9002. See User Reviews, Hours, & Other DetailsSee Menu

South Philly | Italian | Entrée: $21–$30
Ranking: 3 • Last Year’s Ranking: 6
Candied bacon, it turns out, tastes like peanut brittle. But better. Sweet, crunchy, salty, and vaguely redolent of actual meat, it takes an already luscious dessert—roasted apples atop a brown-sugar cake—and turns it into something you remember. Something you talk about the next day. So it goes with pretty much every dish at James, the refined little foodie refuge in Bella Vista, where a sunchoke soup manages to be light (tinged with lemon) and rich (served over black truffles), and a buttery, loose risotto—the most delicate you’ll find this side of Milan—is dotted with bits of oyster. Chef Jim Burke and his wife, Kristina, run the show with such intense attention to detail that naysayers have called the place too precious. The naysayers are wrong. James has earned serious accolades from Food & Wine magazine for the very reasons that we remain evangelical about the place: It has a serious chef making memorably good food in a pretty space. What’s not to love? Order: Tagliatelle with duck ragu, shaved chocolate and orange. Seriously.824 South 8th Street, 215-629-4980. See User Reviews, Hours, & Other DetailsSee MenuMake a Reservation

Le Castagne
Rittenhouse Square | Italian | Entrées: $21-$30
Ranking: 34 • Last Year’s Ranking: 24
It has the heart of a red-gravy joint—with food that can always sate your pasta craving—but with refining touches, creative combinations and lighter sauces. The evidence is in the commitment to the homemade, especially the pastas, which are well matched to special sauces, like the shellfish saffron broth served on egg noodles, and the chestnut cream that envelops spaghetti and gets a sprinkling of cocoa powder. The gauzy decor feels a bit outdated, and Le Castagne isn’t breaking ground, but it’s consistently delivering on its promise to give diners above-the-curve Northern Italian food. Order: The noncommittal pasta sampler that lets you choose three to try. It’s not listed on the menu, but they’re happy to oblige. See User Reviews, Hours, & Other DetailsSee MenuMake a Reservation

Rittenhouse Square | Italian | Entrées: $13-$20
Ranking: 25 • Last Year’s Ranking: 19
This past year, beloved Italian BYO Melograno moved to a new home on Sansom Street, but the larger, airier dining room didn’t diminish the hour-long waits. As dissuading as those waits may be, they’re a testament to all the things chef/owner Gianluca Demontis and his front-of-the-house wife, Rosemarie Tran, continue to do so well. This neighborhood-feeling restaurant manages to elevate itself with a take on Italian that leans towards the streamlined and refined. Even though the curt waiters and the clamor of the wide-open room can make dinner feel rushed, the well-set price point and light flavors that linger—like the bright lemon dressing on the arugula and prosciutto salad, or the dash of truffle oil on the cod—give this spot a cult-like following. Order: Any of the house-made pappardelle pastas. 2012 Sansom Street, 215-875-8116. See User Reviews, Hours, & Other Details

Modo Mio
Northern Liberties | Italian | Entrée: $13—$32
Ranking: 15 • Last Year’s Ranking: 29
If you’re hoping for a quiet evening, Modo Mio is not your spot. But that’s not a bad thing, because the chaos, cramped tables, clamor and hard-to-flag-down waiters are part of this small Italian BYO’s something-special charm. Regardless, all will go still when you bite into the dreamy, hard-crusted-but-doughy-soft house-baked bread—a good tease for the surprisingly lofty meal to come. Chef Peter McAndrew’s larger-than-life Italian food isn’t confined by the small kitchen it comes from: The cotechino sausage is made in-house and served with a ­balsamic-poached egg; a lasagna special is re-thought with sausage and sweetbreads; the gnocchi with a thick wild boar ragu is spiked with chocolate. If that’s not enough, we promise you’ll be addicted when you get the bill—the available-all-the-time four-course Tourista menu is a jaw-­dropping $32. Order: The Milanese-style veal on a well-matched bed of tangy radicchio. 161 West Girard Avenue, 215-203-8707. See User Reviews, Hours, & Other DetailsSee Menu

Fairmount | Italian | Entrée: $21–$30
Ranking: 4 • Last Year’s Ranking: 1
There are tons of reasons to love Osteria, the rustic Italian gem belonging to Marc Vetri, Jeff Benjamin and Jeff Michaud: the smell of spiced sausage as pizzas are pulled from the oak-burning oven; the happy clanking of forks and cacophony of conversation that set this place apart from the more reverent vibe of big sister Vetri; the solicitous sommelier whose joy in life, it seems, is to bring you tastes from the well-thought wine list; and the food. Oh, God, the food. Last time, we loved the pork cooked on a spit, the soft, fatty deliciousness of roasted pig juxtaposed with a crackly bit of skin; the time before that, gnocchi so light they were more like a pasta soufflé, embellished with a crunchy strip of pancetta; and countless crisp-crusted pizzas before that. And while entrées can be a tad inconsistent, almost two years in, the magic hasn’t even begun to wear off. Osteria still thrills. Order: The octopus salad, which is lemony, lightly charred, and just the right amount of chewy.640 North Broad Street, 215-763-0920. See User Reviews, Hours, & Other DetailsSee MenuMake a Reservation

Sovana Bistro
Kennett Square | Italian | Entrées: $21—$30
Ranking: 18 • Last Year’s Ranking: New to the List
Don’t let the shopping center it’s housed in fool you, because this energetic, Chez Panisse-evoking restaurant in Kennett Square is lovely inside, with dark walls and an airy vibe. Refreshingly, “local” here isn’t so much a theme as a natural complement to the seasonal bistro menu—you’d tell a friend about the creative wood-burning-oven pizzas, well-composed salads and fresh-cut pappardelle before mentioning that the mushrooms were foraged mere steps away. While the service can be flighty, the high-quality ingredients, low price point (pizzas are under $15; entrées are mostly below $30), something-for-everyone menu and suave dining room make for an easy meal and a restaurant with staying power. Order: Something off the locavorist “100-mile” menu. 696 Unionville Road, Kennett Square, 610-444-5600. See User Reviews, Hours, & Other DetailsSee Menu

Center City | Italian | Entrée: More than $30
Ranking: 2 • Last Year’s Ranking: 7
Marc Vetri says all he wants is for diners to remember what a great time they had at his namesake Spruce Street spot. While that philosophy may seem uncomplicated, executing it is anything but. Vetri is now in its 11th year, and the culinary missteps of meals past (like a lackluster squab) are gone, thanks to a talented team of servers led by sommelier and business partner Jeffrey Benjamin and a kitchen championed by Vetri’s trusted chef, Brad Spence. Here, luxury is redefined with a provincial approach, but despite the carefree air the place exudes, everything is intricately planned, and nothing is overlooked. Mouthwatering pastas are draped in sauces like beefy rib-cap ragu; bay scallops are so tender, they masquerade as gnocchi; and the gnocchi are a weightless version of the doughy puffs you thought you knew. Of course, all this approachability has its price: The weekend tasting menu is $135, and the scant 35 seats make nabbing reservations hard. But it’s still the finest dining in an ain’t-no-big-thing vibe that makes Vetri the cornerstone of our current, groundbreaking restaurant era. Order: The house-cured sausage.312 Spruce Street, 215-732-3478. See User Reviews, Hours, & Other DetailsSee MenuMake a Reservation

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