by Len Lear
I can still remember our first visit to Savona shortly after it opened in October, 1997, at 100 Old Gulph Road (Route 320) in Gulph Mills in a fieldstone building constructed in 1765 that was previously home to Tierra and, before that, the Picket Post for many years. (It is about a 25-minute drive from Chestnut Hill.)
I recall vividly the huge kettle that was reportedly used in the 1770s and 1780s to prepare dinners for the troops led by Revolutionary War Gen. Aaron Burr when the building was used as Burr’s home and headquarters. (There is probably no truth, however, to the rumor that British prisoners were cooked in the kettle, although they certainly would have fit in it.)
Savona is named for a seaport in Northern Italy that has been renowned for years as a source of high-quality seafood and beef. The restaurant embodies the spirit of the French and Italian Riviera with its terra cotta-colored walls, tile floors, cherry wood and granite bar, the finest linens and silver, a riot of fresh flowers and impeccably dressed staff members. One friend from East Falls has always referred to Savona as “the Four Seasons with free parking.”
The Zagat Dining Guide once wrote that Savona is a “special-occasion classic” with “superb” food, a “magnificent” wine list and “first-rate service,” adding that “you may experience ‘sticker shock’ from the bill, (but) to most it’s worth every penny.”
The question is whether there are enough affluent diners in the area who are willing and able to pay $17 for a glass of Pinot Noir from Burgundy, $17 for a glass of French Cabernet, $21 for a foie gras appetizer, $40 for a lamb entree, $55 for a sauteed Dover sole, etc. Savona spokesmen also insist they have the largest wine list of any restaurant in the state — over 1,200 wines. The wine list has more pages than some books I’ve read.
But dining at Savona is an epic poem to indulgence in high-quality luxury products. The preparation and presentation by executive chef Andrew Masciangelo, chef de cuisine Michael Kirk and their staff bespeak a primal, judicious love of great products and of sealing in every drop of flavor. And when it comes to service, you might have several visitors — servers, sommelier, runners — during dinner, but somehow they all seem to be communicating wordlessly and are professional without being stuffy. The only question, as I mentioned earlier, is the affordability factor, even for a celebratory occasion.
Dishes come with deft grace notes that are light yet vivid. An Heirloom tomato salad was pricey at $16, but the tomatoes, exploding with juice, were downright drool-worthy, snuggling up to eggplant and red wine pickled sweet onions. (We loved the Heirloom tomatoes so much that we asked where they came from. We were told they had been purchased at the Bryn Mawr Farmers Market, so we went there the next day to get some. Yummy!)
The hero of the French Burgundy escargots dish ($20), an appetizer, was the summer squash risotto, which reminded me of a remark by Grimod de la Rayniere, a famed French gourmand, who once wrote, “I would eat my own father with such a sauce.” (I personally would not go that far, but I would definitely not allow the plate to return to the kitchen with a bite of the risotto remaining on it.)
A pan-seared halibut spread through the mouth with uncommon richness, the languid stroll of its accompanying gazpacho consomme taking its own sweet time ($37). These were familiar flavors that sang in true harmony. A sauteed Dove sole, de-boned at tableside, was mild and moist, but the subtle, divine lemon-pine nut butter sauce magnified the flavor and sent it back like a boomerang. It was more than the sum of its parts, but the $55 price tag is daunting.
A home-made salted caramel cream cheese dessert, ennobled by a raspberry chocolate brownie and gelato ($7), was a paragon of sweetness that revealed itself in waves of flavor. But the only joker in the deck was the twice-baked carrot cake ($9) that was lacking in strong carrot flavor.
The wine list is a virtual encyclopedia, as mentioned earlier. The wines we tasted by the glass were decent but overpriced. Most are in the $12 to $17 range.
Chef Masciangelo, who has won a buffet of awards and chef de cuisine Kirk present familiar flavors with refined style, seasonality and exquisite technique that allows the high-quality ingredients to sparkle. In addition to the main menu, there is a more casual menu with pizzas from $16 to $18, pasta dishes from $18 to $24 and entrees from $19 to $26, among others. Savona also has a Happy Hour with half-off all drinks and small plates.
For more information, call 610-520-1200 or visit savonarestaurant.com.