Exile on 9th Street

New restaurants Monsù, 943 and Paloma are trying to transform the Italian Market into a dinner destination. But will the customers support them?

It’s the evening after Peter McAndrews’s triumph on “Throwdown With Bobby Flay” and Monsù, the chef’s new Sicilian restaurant in the Italian Market, is as empty as a school cafeteria on a Sunday.

[sidebar]The kitchen sends out an arancino the size of a grapefruit, its crisp shell of fried rice stuffed with short rib and draped with a swatch of caciocavallo cheese. The sweet-pea emulsion underneath has no chance of cutting through that wrecking ball of richness, but for eight bucks you’d think Paesano’s loyalists would drop McAndrews’s Flay-beating sandwiches to try a different sort of gastro grenade. On this evening, though, the entire restaurant belongs to a lone twosome.

Next out are crespelle crowned with almost-candied tomatoes, rosemary fumes rising from a warm moat of brown butter—evidence that Damien Messina, Monsù’s chef de cuisine, knows how to pull off the kind of ample, mouth-filling dishes that typify McAndrews’s cooking at Modo Mio. There is lump crab camouflaged by soft gnocchi, a blush of tomato cream sauce and pistachio shards. Grilled lamb loin comes “in the style of the horse” (Sicilians eat that, apparently), with green olives, sun-dried tomatoes and a crepe underneath slowly absorbing all the meat juices, for just $21.

So where is everybody?

They aren’t at 943, a block and a half down 9th Street, where the white walls glow like a museum display behind the plate-glass storefront. It’s another beautiful night, but it’s the same Italian Market story: empty chairs at empty tables. Chef-owner Pascual Cancelliere hasn’t appeared on national TV, but he has something that, in this neighborhood, is just as valuable: family history. His dad, John Cancelliere (“Johnny Reds,” people called him, for his shock of red hair) owned nearby Café Longano as well as Monsù’s predecessor, the Butcher’s Café. But what Cancelliere’s Italian Market roots haven’t provided—at least in 943’s first two months—is a steady clientele.

It’s a pity. The Argentine/Italian fare at his long-in-the-works BYO is more straightforward than inspiring (which matches the service that’s more warm than informative), but there are some winners here at very attractive prices. The walnut-packed blood sausage made converts of my hesitant companions. Creamy, thin-skinned spinach ravioli were lovely to look at—and enormous. And Cancelliere’s grilled short rib might be my favorite steak in town: 15 minutes of indirect heat breaking down some of the toughness before a high-blaze finish. No marinade, no pan sauce, just the haunting muskiness of a cut that’s typically braised all day, its intense flavor amplified by this Argentine treatment.

But 943 is still finding its legs. An octopus salad featured celery, fennel, peas and saffron, but tasted unaccountably of mustard oil. And I don’t care how slow things are and how pleasant your flan is; a restaurant shouldn’t go into an evening armed with just one real dessert.

Dearth of desserts is not a problem a few blocks away at Paloma, which six months ago traded its longtime digs in the Northeast for a South Philly address. Add up all the pound cakes, cheesecakes, layer cakes and sorbets here, and the count would read about six sweet options for every customer present. Co-owner Barbara Cohan-Saavedra has an uncommon touch with the ice-cream maker—especially when she starts throwing habaneros in with strawberries, or mole with oranges—but her husband, Adan Saavedra, might be the only James Beard- nominated chef in America thumbing his cell phone in the dining room as a single party whiles away a midweek evening.

Strictly speaking, Paloma isn’t in the Italian Market, but apparently it’s close enough to suffer from its curse.