[ review ]
Where there's smoke, there's fire — unless you're at Apollinare, in which case, where there's smoke there's vanilla gelato coaxed into a solid state by liquid nitrogen and elbow grease.
One recent evening, a waitress worked a giant whisk like a weapon of death, beating the vanilla bean-freckled gelato base in a copper bowl, the utensil's round handle clanking against the vessel's side. At the same time, another waitress added the nitrogen in a steady, minus-300-degree stream from a frost-encrusted pitcher. They resembled two (younger, prettier) witches at their cauldron, conjuring a Medusa head of icy fork-tongued plumes. The smoke rose and billowed, soon enveloping the sides of the cloth-covered rolling cart and my suddenly-very-cold ankles.
All the people in this Piazza ristorante oohed, ahhed. All eight of them — and that included my guest and me, the bartender and the pizzaiolo stationed by a yawning oven burning 772 degrees, according to the digital read-out on the white tiled wall. Apollinare, which specializes in the cooking of Umbria, sure knows how to put on a show. But for whom?
Multiple visits to Apollinare, one of them on a Friday, found an 85-seat restaurant (165 when you include the woven chairs set beneath two canopied, trellis-fringed patios) at about 20 percent capacity. White-clad cooks passed constantly in and out of the kitchen, its saloon-style door swinging more than Ryan Howard. With so few customers to charm, the staff milled about the oversize burgundy room like sleep-deprived freshmen. A few practiced Italian.
Why so quiet, Apollinare? Owner Fabio Auguadro has the cred — he operates three restaurants, a hotel and a catering hall in his homeland of Umbria, from which the Apollinare menus draws inspiration. Up until recently, chef Andrea Scotacci, Auguadro's business partner in the Italian jobs, ran the Northern Liberties location, the first of four planned for the U.S. Now, the chef is back in Italy, though his grinning visage still graces the Apollinare website, clutching a 2010 Philly Cooks! award for best dessert (the liquid-nitro gelato), an honor landed shortly after the boyhood friends from Spoleto turned the wine bar Vino into Apollinare in January.
Auguadro says he's just hired two new chefs to run his kitchen, so I'd be willing to cut the leaderless team that cooked my meals a break — if it needed it. Given the circumstances, you'd think otherwise, but the food isn't the problem here.
Gaffes happened, sure. Halved grape tomatoes come to mind, so over-chilled and tasteless that the pomodorini pizza might as well have been topped with red-dyed ice cubes. So does the loose mussel-stock sauce for the stuffed tortelli, featuring the equivalent of a sun-baked tide pool (scrawny shelled mussels, translucent baby shrimp, fish flakes) rehydrated with white wine.
But mostly, Apollinare turns out good food. It's not as delicious as the fare at James, Le Virtù, Modo Mio or Vetri's triumvirate, but it's better than a lot of what passes for Italian in this town. House-made pastas are its forte, especially when they involve Umbrian truffles, as the ravioli and gnocchetti do. Impregnated with spinach and ricotta, the round ravs seemed to drift on silken white truffle cream like unoccupied bumper boats. Ground into a pesto with extra-virgin olive oil, salt and pepper, the coarser black truffle laid a Dalmatian's coat over the gnocchetti, small potato dumplings so dense and irregularly shaped they resembled the spaetzle you'll find closer to the Swiss and Austrian borders.
Look for unusual cuts like spelt maltagliati ("badly cut" trapezoids), strangozzi ("stranglers") and the aforementioned tortelli, tortellini's less popular older sister. Apollinare works red caviar into the tortelli dough, and the swollen pasta blushes at the lavish treatment. Besides color, the roe imbued the dough with an interesting brininess, underscoring puréed red snapper, lobster, clams and shrimp inside. The salmon tartare is chopped by hand, another of Apollinare's tableside presentations. House-baked bruschetta upheld the cool, raw fish lashed with whole-grain mustard, capers, red onion and parsley.
At the long black bar, I tore into rustic pork ribs under amber pendant lights. The glistening racks get marinated in olive oil infused with sage, rosemary, thyme and tons of garlic, grilled and anointed with more of the same herbaceous oil for a finished product that feels like something Strega Nonna might serve you were you to stumble upon her cabin in Umbria's boar-filled woods. They'd be easier to eat separated into individual ribs, but I tried my best, ditching the fork and knife for my God-given silverware.
From Apollinare's almost-all-Italian cellar, I sipped Soave, as the women beside me — the kind who've seen Under the Tuscan Sun one too many times — got sloshed on Cosmos while pretending to deflect flattery from swarthy male staffers. (I felt oily just eavesdropping.) Later, a meatball of a man rolled in and name-dropped Tony Danza, an apparent regular of Vino, and that chatty bartender, bless her heart, indulged him.
Just beyond the bar lies the pizza counter and blazing oven, which turns out pies (all but one in the $10-to-$14 range) with exactly the kind of crust I like: thin, snappy and sooty. Once I nudged the pomodorini's terrible tomatoes away, I systematically devoured it slice by super-thin slice, savoring the crisp crust, veil of mozzarella and peppery fresh arugula. Northern Libertines are lucky to call Apollinare their neighborhood pizzeria. Which begs the question: Why aren't they here?
Could the answer be the Piazza, whose apartment buildings turn their backs to the rest of NoLibs in frosty rebuff? "Looks like the game board to Mall Madness," according to the Piazza virgin I took to dinner, an assessment too good not to quote. For as open as this postmodern plaza is, it can also be uncomfortably insular, and when 80,000 square feet of space is anything but packed, it feels empty and eerie, on some Talented Mr. Ripley shit.
Then again, Auguadro is effusive in his praise for the Piazza's Italian-ness, so what do I know? All I can do is count the occupied tables, and the math is disheartening. I'd like to put Apollinare through a shrink ray, reduce it to a quarter of its current size, relocate it to Queen Village or Graduate Hospital and see what happens. My guess: a busy restaurant, filled with smoke.