Monday, April 9, 2012

Review: Zavino, 13th and Sansom, Philadelphia

There are some well-known places in Philly turning out high-grade Neapolitan pies – Osteria and Stella. Stella is kinda pricey, and we shelled out over $100 for drinks, appetizers, and bar pies at Osteria. There are other wonderful old-school pies in Philly that feature a thin and crisp “Trenton style” crust, such as the legendary Tacconelli’s, and the superb Slice, which models its pies on Trenton’s DeLorenzo’s. I appreciate and love a good puffy Neapolitan crust, but I grew up on Trenton-style and my heart is still there.
Click any image to enlarge

All of this serves as background to a trip to Zavino, which critics have cited as one of the best pies in Center City, if not the whole town. I landed there with EPBAC (eats pizza but avoids cheese) on a recent Sunday night around 5:30 p.m. At the corner of 13th and Sansom, this cozy place is long and narrow, with a handsome bar extending the full length with just a handful of tables. Even at this early hour, we faced a 20 minute wait for a table, and thus we opted to dine at the bar.
From www.Zavino.com
Savino specializes in Neapolitan pizza, but it’s not a pizzeria. It is more of a gastro-pub, with a short but thoughtful list of wines and beers and signature cocktails as well as lots of blackboard specials. Menu items are inventive, including things like a frisee salad with lotus root chips. On this night, they had a pork shank special that looked wonderful (I caught a glimpse as it was served to nearby diners). If this was in my neighborhood, I’d visit at least weekly.

Zavino on Urbanspoon

But of course, we came for the pizza. Zavino tells us this about their approach to pie-making:

“They are each made to order, allowing you to invent and alter our ideas as you go. With all this thought and care put into our pizzas, we can assure you we’d never, ever, send you a burnt pie. We’re working with 850+ degrees to assure our oven keeps your crusts crunchy and your cheese melted. During this process, the outer rim of the pizza tends to char. We’re not working on a microwave conveyor belt, here. The color on your crust is your guarantee against soggy middles and lukewarm pies. View your char as our promise: quality pizzas made with quality ingredients, cooked to perfection."

Despite the somewhat contradictory nature of "never ever a burnt pie" and "the rim tends to char," we gladly accept a scorched cornicione for the assurance that the rest of the pie is properly cooked.

EPBAC ordered the spinach salad from the blackboard specials. It was designed to have a goat cheese dressing which I expect I would have loved, but she avoided the cheese and ordered oil and balsamic dressing on the side. Result was a perfectly good salad we shared, but nothing special about it.

I chose the "Joey" personal-size (the only size) pie for $15. The Joey features not baby kangaroo as you might guess, but Berkshire pork sausage, fior di latte, crushed tomato, spinach, garlic chili flakes, and provolone. There was a blackboard special pie (sweet and sour cherry tomato) as well as other intriguing choices including the mushroom-loaded "Kennett" and one featuring pistachio pesto. Our bartender/server was a pleasant guy and the drinks and salad arrived quickly. Oddly, for a pie that probably cooks in 3 minutes or less, it took a looooong time for the pizza to come out.

On first bite, I knew that Zavino rightly belongs with the top pie-makers in Philly. This was a well-executed Neapolitan, with that puffy/chewy crust and the perfect charring underneath. It had two huge blackened bubbles on the edges, which I had to remove but which did nothing to diminish the enjoyment of the pie.

I love fior di latte, but much like any version of fresh mozz, it's a wet cheese. And the total amount of moisture on this pie was a bit (not a lot) over the ideal. I'm cool with the need to eat the first bite of each Neapolitan slice with a knife and fork; the delicate crust will rarely allow you to pick it up like a Trenton slice. But the total weight of the cheeses, spinach, tomato, and sausage was beyond ideal here.

That's a small criticism, because the taste was wonderful. There was a perfect flavor balance from the tomato tang, creamy mozz, and savory sausage. I especially enjoyed the kick of the garlic chili flakes. I must add that, by the last slice, the moisture from the top had seeped into the crust, so that a full 50% of the pie was wet. Solution? Sparser toppings across the board might do it.

All in all, this was a place with a great vibe, fascinating menu, and well-crafted artisanal Neapolitan pies. Let's go with a 10 for the atmosphere and 8 for the service. Crust gets an 8.5, cheese a 10, sausage 9.5, tomatoes 9.5, balance of flavors 9.5; balance of crust to stuff on top gets a 4. Overall, this comes in at 8.5. Fine fare in a cozy setting.

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