by Len Lear
Although Philadelphia has become one of the best restaurant cities in the U.S., you could read reviews in the Inquirer, Philadelphia magazine, Philadelphia Weekly and numerous restaurant review websites without reading about one restaurant from Northeast Philly, long considered a restaurant wilderness.
However, every rule has an exception, and I am here to report that it is well worth a trip from the Chestnut Hill area to dine at Macaroni’s, 9315 Old Bustleton Ave., a stone’s throw from Roosevelt Boulevard (if you are an Olympic gold medal stone thrower).
Regarding both the menu items and the daily specials, there is not a joker in the deck. Chef Gianni and his team are able to plumb sublime flavors from seemingly simple combinations with firecracker finesse. And the service and friendliness of the staff are nonpareil.
Macaroni’s is an authentic Italian restaurant that brothers Davide and Gianni Primavera have operated with python intensity since taking it over 23 years ago, shortly after they graduated from high school, proving that the best ability is durability.
The brothers got their start in the hospitality business working at the original Macaroni’s; when the owner announced his departure as the brothers finished their senior year, the young entrepreneurs used their parents’ home as collateral to finance their purchase of the restaurant. Their parents, who came here from Italy in 1965, were both tailors at Boyd’s for Men.
You can tell from observing the interactions with the servers, who seem to know their names, that most of the customers are regulars. It is easy to see why guests return time and again for the Old World Italian fare prepared with contemporary techniques and ingredients.
Now, there are lots of great restaurants in the Philadelphia area, but one bonus Macaroni’s has is their just-opened outdoor kitchen/lounge, “P² (‘P Square’) Lounge.” For years I have insisted that the most spectacular outdoor restaurant area in the Delaware Valley was at Coyote Crossing, a two decades-old Mexican restaurant in Conshohocken, but it just may have been overtaken by P².
Designed by Gianni’s wife, Gosia, an architect, P² is named for the twin brothers’ shared last initials and is an eye candy confection that features a variety of seating options. A custom-crafted brick oven looks out on a 40-seat square bar with walnut stools, a Miami or L.A.-style lounge beneath the glittering light strands of a pergola, a granite bar top from Brazil and larger communal tables that can comfortably accommodate groups of all sizes, enveloped by lush greenery.
And there are folding glass doors that can surround the bar and create an all-weather space that still feels open and breezy, even on cool or rainy evenings. I can honestly say we were shocked to find such a high-fashion Architectural Digest-worthy setting in a residential area. It is a bonfire in a field of damp kindling and an antidote to sameness. It is the kind of place where young ladies and men may be seen peacocking for the attention of the opposite sex. I have no doubt that throughout the warm-weather months it will be busier than the suntan lotion sellers at the Jersey shore.
Now of course, all of this glam would be irrelevant without the food to back it up. But the food is at the same ethereal level as the look and feel of P². The impeccable technique is apparent from the first bite of complimentary roasted green Italian peppers, seasoned with a kick and served with crusty bread at the start of every meal.
In a city with no shortage of notable octopus dishes, the grilled Spanish octopus here ($18) ranks right in the top tier. When I took my first taste, a low moan of pleasure escaped from my lips.
A salad of heirloom tomatoes and burrata cheese was meltingly tender with shimmering freshness and soul to spare, luxuriating in a basil pistachio pesto and earthy core of prosciutto ($15).
When it comes to seafood dishes, chef Gianni is king of the gill. A pan-roasted cobia special was delicate, like silk falling from skin, caressed by a sublime caper cream sauce and New Jersey Savoy spinach ($28).
A seafood risotto entrée with rock shrimp, calamari and crabmeat, like the other dishes, is rooted in the old ways, adjusting the subtle dials of texture, temperature and presentation to render each bite inventive and fresh ($35).
There is a huge variety of cocktails, beer and wine and a separate menu at P², and our server was a charming, handsome young man from South Philly. It is obvious that the Primavera brothers orbit in a galaxy all their own.
More information at 215-464-3040 or www.macaronis.net.