by Steve Ahern
Felice Saldutti sits in the center of his nine-table restaurant, da Ludovica, beside a window overlooking the streaming traffic along Limekiln Pike. The 62-year-old artist, and now restaurateur, has recently returned from the markets, where he has foraged some of the food his executive chef, Chris Molitor, will need to cook for tonight’s patrons.
“Today I was a hunter, a fisherman and a farmer,” he says, having returned with veal, branzino and spinach.
da Ludovica, which opened Jan. 10 at 15 Limekiln Pike, about one mile north of Arcadia University and 10 minutes from Chestnut Hill, is empty and still now as Saldutti and Molitor await the dinner hour when, it is hoped, some of the traffic on the Limekiln Pike will stream in and partake of one or more of the made-to-order dishes on the menu amid the thrum of medieval music, dim lighting, tasteful décor and, perhaps, one or more bottles of wine patrons will have brought along themselves. (da Ludovica is a BYOB establishment and accepts cash only.) Saldutti has imbued the restaurant with the spirit and sensibility of his artistic talent and his reverence for the Italian tradition. Behind him hang two of his still-life paintings, which show vases on tables with drape rendered vividly and striking use of color. The colors of the walls — sage green, terra-cotta orange and hay yellow — are the colors, Saldutti says, of some of the spices and sauces used in dishes he serves. A picture of Saldutti’s mother, for whom the restaurant is named, hangs above the reception station and is the first picture patrons see when they enter his establishment.
Saldutti was just three years old when he arrived in Philadelphia with his parents in 1954 from Irpina, a mountainous region in southern Italy approximately 40 kilometers from Naples. His parents found work in the garment industry and worked as tailors. Saldutti’s introduction to food preparation came from his father, who butchered his own meat, made his own salami and wine and grew his own vegetables. He also learned from his grandmother, who cooked the meals for the family while his parents worked outside the home.
His interest in cooking piqued further when he left home at 18. He quickly tired of the mundane, hurried fare of the bachelor and began using the recipes featured on the ‘Galloping Gourmet’ program with Graham Kerr. He bought a cookbook of Roman recipes to learn more about the origins of Italian cooking. Shortly after leaving home, he had hopes of opening a restaurant with his uncle, who ultimately balked at the financial commitment required to realize the project.
Beyond food and music (Saldutti plays percussion), art was the first creative force in his life. When he was seven years old and yet unable to speak English at St. Michael of the Saints School in Germantown, his ability to draw caught the attention of the nuns, who put him to work on that year’s Christmas decorations.
With persistence and devotion, art soon became his vocation. He studied at the Philadelphia College of Art in the late 1960s and early 1970s while working in restaurants as a food prep and cook to supplement his income while he painted. Felice returned to Italy in 1978 to paint the varied landscape of his country (among other subjects), develop his art and work as a commissioned artist. He remained there for most of the next 20 years.
When he returned to the U.S. in the 1990s with a wife and two young children, he worked once again in a restaurant as a line cook while continuing to paint. But Saldutti had no vision for a restaurant of his own until recently, when friends, who communed at his home for dinner over the years, urged him to open his own Italian restaurant. Two years later, da Ludovica was born last month.
Saldutti met chef Molitor through a mutual friend who was helping Saldutti renovate a room in the restaurant he will use for parties in the future. Molitor exudes the confidence and ease of someone who has spent most of the last 25 years prepping and cooking in professional kitchens. Largely self-taught, Molitor has always loved learning about food, beginning in the kitchens of his mother and grandmother, where he helped out with the cooking as a child, well before his first paid job in a pizzeria and steak shop in Norristown at the age of 15. Molitor’s indoctrination into fine Italian dining occurred in 2008 when he began working as a sous chef under Giacomo Georgi at the now-shuttered Trinacria in Blue Bell.
One Sunday, Saldutti invited Molitor in to cook for him, his wife Emilia, their two sons and his sister. Molitor prepared the carmelle (ravioli), veal carciofine (with artichokes), and a pair of pasta dishes. Within the first few bites, Molitor impressed Saldutti enough to be hired that day. “It was very simple,” Saldutti recalls. “It took just one item (the ravioli) to understand exactly the capacity and willingness to take this adventure with me.”
Molitor’s appetizers include polenta cake with shrimp in a white wine sauce, grilled vegetables topped with mozzarella and pesto, and plum tomatoes (fresh from Italy) filled with goat cheese and topped with pesto. The pasta is made fresh daily by Emilia, Saldutti’s wife. Entrees include chicken, veal, steak and fish dishes. Prices range from about $10 for appetizers to $16 for pasta dishes to $19 to $23 for chicken and veal entrees and $26 to $32 for seafood and steak entrees.
For more information, call 215-886-1715.