Ernesto’s 1521 Café
1521 Spruce St.
Credit cards accepted
Restaurant is up a flight of stone steps
Open for lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch
Reservations an absolute must
In the world of pasta, there’s ravioli and then there’s ravioli. Ravioli are a mainstay of Italian restaurants all over town. More often than not, they are commercially made, all cookie-cutter like, filled with ricotta and oversauced with tomato gravy.
I am trying to find the words to describe the ravioli ($7) served to my husband Edward and me during dinner at Ernesto’s 1521 Café. The minute our delightful server placed the platter before us, we knew we were in for a first. I have never seen ravioli like these. I have rarely tasted ravioli like these.
The warm platter contained three large (about 3 to 4 inches in circumference), round ravioli with fluted edges that reminded me of flowers. The pasta was made by hand. It was light yet rich in egg. The ravioli were filled with creamy butternut squash with a hint of cinnamon. The sauce was a light, seasoned olive oil, and there were squiggles of fried basil on top.
I’ve eaten butternut squash ravioli and its first cousin, pumpkin ravioli, in a number of places, but the commercial cardboard taste of the dough and the overly rich, usually cream-based sauce with too much Parmesan cheese and butter masked the flavor. These ravioli were luscious, prepared simply with top-quality ingredients that spoke for themselves. Rarely have I tasted a dish prepared with such care.
Ernesto’s is in a townhouse just steps from the Kimmel Center. We booked a table because reservations are a must. A pretty black and white art-deco reserved sign sat on the white-clothed table. The dining room is quite serene, with pale yellow walls, pretty frosted white wall sconces, soft jazz on the sound system and a staff that is professional, courteous and attentive. There were other diners in the restaurant, and the conversation level was perfect. The lighting was perfect, too. I could easily read the menu and see the food on my plate.
The wine list is pure Italian, with a number of bottles in the $20-$25 range. Each bottle lists the vintage and the region of Italy where it was bottled. We sipped a light, slightly sweet Montepulciano ($20) and discussed the menu. Our server brought us warm bread and green extra-virgin olive oil.
Soup of the day ($5) was a generous bowl filled with lentils, spinach, bits of tomato, onions and fresh carrots. It was thick and tasty and reminded me of the delicious farm-style soups served throughout Italy and France.
A number of salads intrigued me, but as soon as I saw artichokes in the Ernesto’s salad ($7.50), I wanted to find out if they were jarred or canned. I received a cool plate filled with a mound of fresh baby greens. Baby artichokes are in season now and, as soon as I saw them, I knew they were freshly made. They retained a bit of bite, which I liked.
My salad also contained pitted Gaeta olives, strips of red roasted peppers and generous shavings of Asiago. No one will attack you with a pepper mill at Ernesto’s because one sits on every table. Edward and I thought there was too much balsamic vinegar in the dressing, however. Still, the salad was refreshing and imparted a clean taste of flavors and textures.
Unfortunately, the entrées were disappointing. Cioppino ($19) was served in a soup bowl, as it should be, and was not poured over linguine, as it should not be. The tomato-based sauce was on the thin side. Edward and I thought the portion was on the small side. The cioppino contained a few small shrimp, a scallop or two, some clams (which were very fresh) and slices of toasted bread. The menu stated that fish is also added to the pot, but the chef forgot to add it to the soup bowl. We both thought the dish was a bit salty.
I have always believed that if chefs follow a classic, simple recipe for osso buco alla Milanese, the dish will always be a success. Ernesto’s osso buco ($24) lacked tomato, onions and celery. A large veal shank sat in a large pool of brown, watery gravy, which was a little greasy. The risotto was properly cooked, a bit toothsome as it should be, and was bright yellow in color and contained saffron threads. Saffron is a classic ingredient in cooking osso buco alla Milanese. But the veal and rice were so salty, I could not enjoy my dinner.
It is becoming dinner as usual at many restaurants when the appetizers, salads and first courses are tasty and well prepared yet the entrées fall very short. Edward and I found it hard to believe that a restaurant that turned out such unusually delicious, memorable, carefully prepared ravioli presented ordinary main courses.
That said, service was excellent throughout dinner. Silverware was changed with each course. Our server brought us pony glasses of complimentary limoncello at the end of the meal.
Would I return to Ernesto’s? Yes. The prices are more reasonable than those at many of the restaurants in Rittenhouse Row and near the Kimmel Center. Another reason is I want to try a number of their homemade pastas, especially the three-cheese lasagna ($13), which is prepared with homemade sheets of fresh pasta. Since the ravioli were so exceptional, I’ll bet the lasagna will be, too.
Two tips of the toque to Ernesto’s 1521 Café.