The antipasto bar offers a wide variety of tasty items for one fixed price of $9.95.

by Len Lear

Is there anyone who does not love Italian food? In the western world there is no more popular ethnic cuisine, according to a number of studies. But you don’t need studies; just look at the Zagat Dining Guide for Greater Philadelphia. I started counting the number of Italian restaurants, but I stopped counting at 150. Nothing else even comes close.

In our own area there are Stella Sera and Cosimo’s in Chestnut Hill (and another Italian restaurant soon to open in the old Melting Pot location), Bacio in Mt. Airy, DiMeo’s and Maria’s in upper Roxborough, Sorrento and The Boot in Lafayette Hill, Bocelli in Gwynedd, Castello’s and Radice in Blue Bell, Zachariah’s in Worcester, Il Giardino in Spring House, Ristorante San Marco and From the Boot in Ambler, Trevi in Glenside, Scoogi’s in Flourtown, Stella Blu, Pepperoncini, Theresa’s, Pasta Via and Spampinato’s in Conshohocken, among others.

But for someone contemplating opening an Italian restaurant, this ubiquitous affection for Italian food can be a double-edged sword. Because there are so many fine Italian restaurants at all price levels, the competition is about as tough as climbing up an escalator on roller skates. In the past year, for example, Bocelli 2 in Chestnut Hill, Viggiano’s and Totaro’s in Conshohocken, and Trinacria and Chef Salvatore in Blue Bell have all closed their doors.

Speaking of Chef Salvatore, its property at 602 Skippack Pike (Route 73 and Penllyn-Blue Bell Pike) in Blue Bell, about five minutes from Bethlehem Pike and a few minutes past the Broad Axe Tavern, is a case in point of how tough the competition is in the Italian restaurant Olympics. In the 1990s it was the site of Marabella’s, an Italian restaurant that was owned by long-time Chestnut Hill resident Gabriel Marabella.

The building was vacant for a few years but was then occupied by the Blue Horse Restaurant & Tavern, which lasted a few years in the same building but succumbed two years ago to the vagaries of the economy. After that came Domenico’s, run by a chef who had operated a small but highly regarded BYOB in Ventnor, New Jersey. Domenico’s lasted one year and was replaced by Chef Salvatore, another Italian restaurant which lasted one year.

“Both of them were inconsistent,” said Maureen Gallo, a resident of Wyndmoor who checks out area restaurants with the determination that Silicon Valley companies bring to new cell phone products. “If you have just one bad meal or even a so-so meal, there is no need to go back because there are so many other good Italian restaurants around.”

In April of this year L’Angolo Blue entered the Italian restaurant sweepstakes in the Blue Bell location last occupied by Chef Salvatore. “So many of these Italian restaurants are run by people from Albania and other places but who claim they are Italian,” said Antonio Spinola, co-owner with Salvatore Caratta, who also own Buona Via in Horsham and Cafe le Fontana in Hatboro.

Spinola doesn’t just enter a room. He takes possession of it. He is good looking, charming and knows the business like the fingers on his hands. His passion for Italian cuisine comes as naturally to him as leaves to a tree since he hails from Puglia, a region of Southeastern Italy bordering on the Adriatic Sea. He came here 21 years ago at the age of 21.

Executive chef Manuel Jimenez, who is as serious as Monday morning, cooks from the heart (and from the kitchen); he was also the executive chef at two previous restaurants owned by Spinola and Caratta, Trattoria Mediterraneo in Newtown and Pane e Vino in Doylestown.

Based on our experience last week at L’Angolo Blue, the chef’s food not only speaks for itself; it sings. It’s very hard to practice girth control here. Near the active bar is a table full of eye-OK antipasto selections you can fill up on for $9.95.

Appetizers and salads are mostly in the $5 to $10 range. There are several pasta and chicken entrees between $16 and $20. Veal and steak menu entrees range from $23 to $27, and there are several specials every day.

An appetizer of spinach and pancetta encased and lavished in baked portobello mushrooms, an Italian restaurant staple, was a ray of sunshine. A slightly more audacious appetizer was a plate full of sauteed coins of calamari anointed with a spicy, vibrant tomato sauce that reverberated in waves of heat and sweetness for a full 10 seconds on my tongue.

Rigatoni Bolognese, dressed with a savory, muscular tomato sauce, was so well balanced, it was hard to tell where the pasta ended and the sauce began. Cioppino, not on the menu but always available, was a tangle of black fettuccine married to a briny bouquet of scallops, mussels, clams and shrimp in a nondescript sauce.

Anyone who could fog up a mirror would enjoy the desserts at L’Angolo Blue prepared by a handsome and personable young man, Ryan Kucowski. A chocolate lava cake was meltingly divine.

L’Angolo Blue, which offers a very reasonably priced wine selection by the glass or bottle (some good choices for $6 and $7 a glass), removes the starch from fine dining, and the noise level was quite tolerable when we were there last Thursday, even though the dining room and bar were both packed by 8 p.m. Two potent, well made cocktails were the Italian martini and the Aphrodite, $8.50 each, the latter a subtle blend of peach vodka, rose passion fruit liqueur and champagne.

Most of the customer comments I checked on the food blogs have been giving L’Angolo Blue high marks so far, but whether the new addition will have enough “legs” to break the Italian restaurant jinx that seems to haunt the Blue Bell location is impossible to predict.

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