by Sam Gugino
For years I avoided restaurants that didn’t take reservations. Waiting up to an hour for a table, or having a few unwanted cocktails at a nearby bar until the hostess texts you, is not my idea of how to begin a dining experience. Though Melograno didn’t take reservations when it opened at 22nd and Spruce in 2002, it has since moving to larger digs on Sansom Street.
The wait was worth it. Melograno serves some very good food, especially if you begin with fried smelts, which Melograno prepares as deftly as the fried seafood in Venice, a city without peer in that realm. The generous but light portion was stuffed into three ramekins and served with tangy house-made mayonnaise. (Polenta-crusted sardines have replaced the smelts, but I’d bet they are prepared just as adroitly.)
Pinsa is a rustic oval pizza with a superbly blistered crust and a choice of four toppings including a comforting mix of broccoli, potatoes and Italian sausage. Because it’s substantial and rich, consider sharing at the table with an early round of drinks.
Pastas range from the classic, bucatini Amatriciana, to the unusual, gnudi with ricotta and Tuscan kale dumplings. I loved all the elements in the latter, especially the savory golf ball sized green gnudi. But the sauce (a delicious sage butter with pine nuts and raisins) and pasta seemed like estranged partners. Also, though we told our waiter it was to be shared, it wasn’t divided when it arrived.
You will not get a better lamb shank in the Delaware Valley than the one at Melograno. Like a roasted half lamb my group shared in Morocco some years ago, it retained its shape but was tender enough to pluck out the pieces with your fingers. The exotically spiced (featuring cinnamon and clove) meat sat on a pool of polenta and a flavorful tuft of spinach. Prosaically presented (as it might be in Italy), Calabrian spiced pork ribs were tender but had none of that promised zesty seasoning.
Panna cotta continues to be ubiquitous on restaurant menus. Despite the splash of sambuca, the one at Melograno made me think the trend needs to subside. Much better though was the contrast of a warm and nutty apple bread pudding paired with a sea salt caramel ice cream.
As for service, two above average breads (especially the foccacia, also used in the bread pudding) came to the table straight away, though the accompanying olive oil wasn’t worth the calories. Our server hit just the right balance of friendliness and efficiency and gave prices for the specials, though not voluntarily.
The airy dining room with its whitewashed walls and open kitchen at one end gives the impression of a dining hall in a castle or venerable university, though iron skillets opposite a row of mirrored window panes decorate the walls instead of swords and shields. The hard surfaces all around don’t bode well for quiet conversation when Melograno is busy. But you’ll probably be too busy eating to notice.
Melograno, 2012 Sansom Street, Philadelphia, 215-875-8116, melogranorestaurant.com. Tuesday—Saturday, 5:30 – 10 pm; Sunday, 5 – 9 pm. Reservations and major credit cards accepted. Appetizers, $10-$20. Pinsas and pastas, $17-$20. Entrees, $20-$39.
Though Melograno’s chef-owner Gianluca Demontis was born in Rome, and the menu assumes influence from several Italian regions, I chose wines from Piedmont because, this northwest Italian region has a slew of food friendly wines, especially barbera, one of the world’s great food wines and the most planted red grape in Piedmont. Vietti Barbera D’Asti (Code: 49102, $15.99) is a good value but there are quite a few barberas from which to choose. The nebbiolo grape is king but can be expensive when made into Barolo and Barbaresco. However, the Bersano Barbaresco Mantico 2012 (Code: 78219, $18.99) is a steal, though you’ll need some time to let it open up a bit. For something a bit lighter, try a dolcetto like the Pio Cesare Dolcetto d’Alba (Code: 6351, $19.99)
Among whites, gavi is crisp and minerally and a good match for lighter seafood, like the smelts. It can be insipid if not well crafted. Fortunately, the Bersano 2015 (Code: 78220, $12.99) is. Coppo La Rocca 2014 (Code: 73032, $16.99) is less impressive but still worth drinking. Arneis is a more substantial white with pleasant spice notes that make it more appropriate for richer seafood dishes and poultry. The Tintero Langhe 2015 (Code: 49964, $9.99) is a bargain.
Chestnut Hill resident Sam Gugino is a former Philadelphia Daily News restaurant critic and Wine Spectator Magazine columnist.