Monday, June 20, 2011

Alfredo Brings Authentic Italian Fare to Berwyn on

Growing up as a first generation Italian American in Philadelphia has given me a certain entitlement when it comes to Italian food. And believe me, we Italian girls love our food – it’s not just a stereotype. It's one of those things you never turn down and learn to push on others the way our grandmothers so lovingly do. But being an Italian American is a double-edged sword. Sure you love pasta, but not everyone’s; and when others know about your heritage, they try to impress / comfort you with the flavors of your culture…or so they think.

Be it at a friend’s house or a local restaurant, the thought of eating someone else’s pasta topped with a jar of Prego makes me want to run, hide or even worse; not eat at all.

That being said, my standards are high. And so, I visit Alfredo.

The unclothed dark wood table was set simply with two inviting wine glasses, a white linen napkin and silverware. A young lady arrived to pour our waters followed by our server, Steven. He greeted us, opened our wine and left us to decide on our orders.

Within a moment, the young lady was back with a wooden bowl filled with slices of bread and a plate with a uniquely seasoned oil. Not only was there the standard olive oil and salt, but a hefty amount of a thick salt, crushed red pepper and balsamic all amix. My friend left the bread all to me, so I felt obligated to let none go to waste and got started immediately.

My friend and I began with the Caprese Salad; fresh mozzarella, tomato and basil for $9, and two house specialty appetizers**, the Calamari ai Ferri; charred calamari and cannellini beans for $10 and the Salsiccia & Broccoli Rabe; a home made sausage and rapini dish for $9.50.

She chose the cioppino for her entrée, a seafood stew if you will, comprised of clams, mussels, shrimp, calamari and fish in a light tomato broth for $19.50.

I debated between the Vitello Riviera, a veal medallion with shrimp and crab meat in a white wine sauce. But I ultimately opted for the Paccheri alla Napoletana, a wide rigatoni with a braised short rib ragu for $16.

We sipped our wine and chatted about life. Our first course arrived just in time for me to go through another piece of bread with that delicious oil.

I immediately dug into the nearest dish, the caprese salad. Sitting there in all of its glory the firm red tomatoes, milky white mozzarella and fresh green basil did its native Italy’s colors proud. The balsamic was sparse, squirted atop the salad and perfectly proportioned.

Next, I made my way cautiously to the calamari. When it’s not battered and deep fried, decent calamari is usually hard to come by. I took my first bite tentatively, only to realize the tubes were nearly perfect – tender, yet firm but not rubbery and coated in what felt like a thick olive oil. The accompanying cannellini bean salad was cold, a very well played contrast I felt, but my dining companion was a bit perturbed by the contrast. The beans were perfectly cooked, mixed with tomato, red onion and parsley. It was the perfect complement to the flavor and texture of the calamari and overall a great seasonal dish.

My only complaint was the leaf of lettuce used to house the beans. The level of food that I was enjoying deserved a better vessel than a sad little piece of lettuce. This may be one of the best calamari dished I’ve ever enjoyed and a little work on the plating would give the flavors their due justice.

The next of the house specialties was the Salsicca & Broccoli rabe; well plated and aesthetically beautiful. The homemade sausage was split and perfectly cooked, the texture of the meat was clean, no gristle or chunks of seasoning that needed to be better mixed. Very well done. The broccoli rabe, while looking fabulous, and apparently seasoned with roasted garlic, was not bitter at all, but not especially flavorful. Regardless, we cleaned our plates and were very happy with our appetizers.

Our plates were cleared and our entrees arrived. Set down in front of me was a beautifully plated dish of rigatoni topped with meaty short rib. The gravy looked like it in fact was acceptable, to the naked eye. It was finished with parsley and topped tableside with grated cheese. It begged for me to dig in and I did so, happily.

My friend’s Cioppino, arrived – an overflowing menagerie of seafood. Other than needing its rim wiped, the plate looked delicious. She also had it topped with grated cheese, but when it came to the pepper request, we were presented with the black pepper grinder. I opted out, expecting the crushed red that was customarily given with Italian fare.

As we dug in, my friend realized she was in fact in need of the elusive red pepper. We flagged down our friendly server who immediately brought the flakes that we were looking for to the table.

A taste or two of my friends Cioppino made me wish I hadn’t polished off that bread so hastily. But after the four or so slices I had eaten, I really didn’t need any more. Our server then appeared, offering us more bread. We opted out.

My focus switched back to my rigatoni, which was cooling in front of me. A couple of steamy, saucy bites will slow any girl down pretty quickly. The pasta was perfectly cooked and the gravy itself was very nicely done. A good meat gravy should have an oil factor that would ruin a nice shirt. Not grease, but oil – something that comes out of the meat. It lets you know that it’s been well cooked and not just opened and heated up. The resulting product has a lower acidity level and a rich, layered flavor. This dish met all the criteria.

I wrapped what I couldn’t finish and tried to quickly ask for the check, but my breadl-ess dining partner got the question out too quickly.

“What do you have for dessert,” she asked.

The options sounded great, but the first of the list, the Tiramisu, caught my ear entirely too quickly to turn down. Plus, all of the desserts at Alfredo are house made. My dining partner, a self proclaimed tiramisu aficionado, was equally excited. I skipped the coffee. She had a decaf, to which I laughed. Barely 30 and already drinking decaf…what is this world coming to?

Our picture perfect dessert arrived in a little glass jar with a half-chocolate coated ladyfinger plated next to it and beautifully done.

There could have been more coffee flavor or another layer of ladyfingers. And it was a bit custardy. But ultimately, it was creamy and delicious. As for the plated ladyfinger, it was more of a garnish than anything. Possibly with a cup of coffee, it would have been good to dip, but having a bite of the crispy cookie dipped in semisweet chocolate made me regret that I had. Luckily I had the rest of my tiramisu custard to polish off, leaving me on a happy note.

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