Spiga (1305 Locust), the casual Italian restaurant brainchild of chef Brian Wilson and partners Skip DiMassa, Giuseppe Sena and Anthony Masapollo, all formerly of Le Castagne, opened last week. Penn Appétit got a chance to sample their fare before the public grand opening. Upon entering the restaurant we were welcomed by the smell of smoke from the wood-fired brick oven. Along with the smoke, the exposed brick wall and the low-lighting created an atmosphere that was both cozy and rustic.
The Assaggi course had one of my favorite foods of the night: a white bean, rosemary and truffle spread. The spread was creamy with an addicting truffle flavor that made it hard to stop eating. I couldn't really taste the rosemary, but that did not subtract from the deliciousness of the spread. At first I spooned the white bean spread onto the polenta fries and bread, but eventually began eating it all on its own. The polenta fries were very tasty; I am not usually a fan of polenta but it seems the philosophy that "everything tastes better fried" held true in this case. The smooth garlic aioli that was served with the polenta fries was tangy and garlicky without being too rich, and also tasted good with the shoestring fries that we were served shortly thereafter.
The wood-fired eggplant caponata was another pleasant surprise. In addition to the eggplant, the caponata contained grapes and peppers and made a nice contrast in both texture and taste with the white bean truffle spread and garlic aioli. The Spiga fries (Yukon gold shoestring potatoes with parmigiano cream) were salty and tasty. The menu described them as "spicy," but I found them to be very mild. Finally, the caprino croccante (crispy goat cheese served with red beet dip) was an interesting innovation on their less classy cousin, the fried mozzarella stick. The goat cheese coupled with the red beet dip was a flavorful combination, but I found the sheer amount of goat cheese contained in each croccante to be a little bit more than I wanted of such a strongly flavored cheese.
I too was a fan of the white bean dip. The truffle flavoring added an unexpected richness to a traditional dip, making it downright addictive. In comparison, I found the eggplant caponata a bit lacking. Normally a lover of the deep purple nightshade, I found Spiga's caponata a bit too tart and thought the peppers overwhelmed the eggplant flavor. However, the Spiga fries more than made up for my disappointment over the caponata. They were thin and soft (not crispy, as one might expect), and spotted with melted cheese. They reminded me of a sophisticated, gravy-less poutine, and I admit I ended up munching on far too many throughout the evening.
The two types of pizza that we sampled occupied radically different ends of the pizza spectrum: first, we tried a classic Margherita pizza with tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil. The pizza was cooked in Spiga's signature wood oven, which lent it a crispiness and woody flavor that enhanced the other ingredients. The other pizza we served was like no other pizza that I have ever tried before: it was topped with strawberries, balsamic onion and robiola cheese. At first glance, I felt doubtful about whether this was a pizza that I could eat. Strawberries seemed too much of a divergence from the savory pizza toppings that I was used to eating. However, the combination of strawberries, balsamic onions and robiola cheese turned out to be surprisingly yummy. The acidity of the strawberries and the balsamic onions was balanced by the creamy and mild robiola cheese, and the crunchy pizza crust made the perfect platform for this interaction to take place upon.
As a self-declared pasta lover, I was thrilled with the two pasta dishes that we sampled. The first was gnocchi with porcini sauce, and the incredibly tender gnocchi coupled with the warm and finely blended porcini mushroom topping melted in my mouth in a symphony of savory comfort. The other pasta dish, a much lighter composition of oricchette with robiola cheese, basil and tomato, was a welcome contrast to the warm and heavy flavors of the gnocchi. The tomato and basil created happy bright bursts of flavor in my mouth, and the robiola cheese was applied only sparingly. My only wish was that they would have included more tomatoes in the dish because by this point in the meal I was ready for some more vegetables.
For entrées, we were served a pork chop with peperonata and pecorino cheese sauce as well as a whole Branzino with roasted garlic oil and lemon. While I was a little intimidated by the Branzino (not being much of a fish-eater), my dining companion assured me that it was excellent. The pork chop was perfectly done; it was incredibly tender and the peperonata topping was a nice textural contrast. The peperonata topping, a mix of peppers of varying spiciness, also provided a nice bite with the sweetness of the pork chop. I tried a little of the pecorino cheese sauce with the pork as well and it helped balance the spiciness of the peperonata, but by this point I was not sure how much more cheese I could take (not that the cheese was not COMPLETELY delicious; I was just starting to reach my personal saturation level).
Both entrées far exceeded my expectations. Having been served far too many dry, bland pork chops as a child, I had put them on my "never order" list. However, Spiga's pork chops made me reconsider. They were remarkably moist although, like most pork chops, not incredibly flavorful. Spiga remedied this with their peperonata topping and cheese sauce which, when combined with a morsel of pork chop, was quite delicious.
However I abandoned the pork chop the moment the branzino (European sea bass) was set on the table. My Pacific Northwest snobbery has lead me to believe that I will never find decent seafood for affordable prices in Philadelphia. But the branzino was, indeed, delicious. It too had been wood smoked, making the skin perfectly crisp and charred. The lemon slices slipped into its belly rendered the tender white meat quite flavorful. I beheaded and deboned with gusto, absorbed in my own little seafood heaven.
The desserts provided a delightful end to what was a wonderful meal. Despite my stomach being at the point of bursting, I found room for the sweet treats that were served. I enjoyed the fig and mascarpone pizza immensely; the use of the mascarpone cheese demonstrated yet another tasty incarnation of this diverse type of food. The cannoli were also wonderful: the shells were the perfect thickness and the delicious fillings coupled with the powdered sugar sprinkled on top left me happy and, if possible, ready for more.
The Bottom Line
After this first experience at Spiga, we definitely plan on returning. The restaurant was opened with the goal of providing "simple, yet excellent" food and in our opinion, they have succeeded.
-Brittney Joyce and Elliott Brooks
Tuesday, May 15, 2012