by Sam Gugino
Wine and Dine is a twice monthly column by Chestnut Hill resident Sam Gugino, a former Philadelphia Daily News restaurant critic and Wine Spectator Magazine columnist. Each column will review a Philadelphia area BYOB and offer wine pairing suggestions for anyone planning to visit.
The restaurant’s name is A Mano (by hand), but maybe it should be called Il Segreto (the secret). Because, as of this writing, there is no menu on the web site. Or web site. Or sign on this small corner space at 23rd and Fairmount. A Mano doesn’t take reservations. Or credit cards. Did I mention the secret handshake? (Just kidding.)
Burgundy stuccoed walls, tall windows framed in polished wood and black goose-neck fixtures that bounce light off of black awnings give the exterior a warm feel. Inside, it’s wood, wood, wood – on the pine tabletops, ladder chairs, hickory floors, and around the large, rectangular mirrors. All conspire to boost decibel levels when business is booming.
The regional Italian menu from owner Townsend Wentz (of Townsend restaurant) and chef Michael Millon begins auspiciously with gratis focaccia that is feathery and crisp, if a trifle salty, and comes with a creamy, olive-oil-infused butter.
Lentils and cotechino is an Italian classic, though you don’t often see it in Italian restaurants. The house-made pork sausage and perfectly cooked lentils make a savory combination, especially when seasoned with a surprising lemongrass agrodolce.
Even less common than lentils and cotechino is tripe, which A Mano does superbly. Those strips of bovine belly are cooked to a pleasing chewiness and combined with chickpeas and nubbins of guanciale. All bob in a lightly spiced tomato sauce that will make you flag down the waiter for more foccacia.
Roasted cauliflower, the vegetable of the moment (sorry, kale), is given a southern Italian workup with golden raisins, pine nuts and a Calabrian chili vinaigrette. Good flavors but methinks it would have been a better side dish than a stand-alone starter.
Cauliflower’s au currant seafood equivalent is crudo. This starter features arctic char diced with apple and formed into a cake, marvelously seasoned with house-made vadouvan, a kind of garam masala.
Pastas are designed as a middle course, which is classic Italian, though they can be bulked up for entrees, which isn’t. Resist the latter. The twist in the Amatriciana sauce is guanciale in lieu of pancetta, fiore sardo instead of pecorino Romano and lumachelle, tiny shells rather than thin pasta. It works beautifully.
Potato gnocchi floats onto your fork even when dipped in the rich wild boar ragu. Buckwheat cavatelli comes in an earthy mélange of black trumpet mushrooms, cabbage, sage and fontina.
Pan searing gives a filet of branzino a crisp crust that contrasts nicely with its juicy interior. The baby turnips don’t add much, but the ‘ndjua (spicy Calabrian sausage) vinaigrette does. Calabrian spice also figures in the broth for the succulent, olive oil-poached cod. Omega 3 and monounsaturated fats never tasted so good together.
If you’re looking something sturdier to fortify you against unwanted chill factors outside, the brawny pork shank will do the job as will its accompanying super smooth polenta enriched with taleggio cheese and whipped lardo.
Desserts are not as impressive as the rest of the menu, with the exception of a smooth and rich, yet fluffy panna cotta accented by a crunchy chocolate cookie topping.
With so many interesting and well-prepared dishes, there is no need to keep A Mano a secret, unless you and I want to keep it all to ourselves.
With so many choices, deciding on what Italian wines to bring for an eclectic Italian menu like A Mano’s can be daunting. One red wine choice that always carries the day is Chianti, even when there are no fava beans on the menu. Borgo Scopeto Chianti Classico 2013 (Code: 49287, $14.99) may be the best Chianti bargain in the state. Sufficiently sturdy for tripe, pastas and pork shank, it’s also nimble enough to pair with the branzino. Other Chiantis to consider are Badia A Coltibuono Cetamura Chianti 2014 (Code: 49152, $10.99) and Carpineto Chianti Classico DOCG 2013 (Code: 47644, $18.99).
For those southern Italian dishes, try Mastroberardino Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio Rosso 2014 (Code: 44243, $19.99) Lacryma Christi is more common as white wine, but this red is more interesting and a good match for some of the rusticity on the menu.
As for whites, the crisp and mineral-laden Inama Soave Classico Vin Soave DOC 2014 (Code: 49685, $13.99) is a good partner for vegetable and seafood dishes, though it’s rich enough for light meats as well.
Medium-bodied Fontaleoni Vernaccia di San Gimignano 2013 (Code: 43615, $13.99) is a fresh and flavorful alternative.