"" The city’s newest Italian restaurant is Sovalo, owned by chef Joseph Scarpone and his wife, Karey. Scarpone, who studied classical piano at Temple University, left his Drexel Hill home years ago to hone his culinary skills in the Napa Valley. He recently moved back east with his California-born wife and their two small children and, after some real-estate scouting, took over the building that housed Pigalle in Northern Liberties.

Sovalo – named after their children, Sophia and Valentino – opened about six weeks ago. My husband, mother and I enjoyed a recent dinner at this charming place, which features unusual rustic Italian cucina. The staff knows everything about the tiny bill of fare. Marie, our server, told us the chef insists they taste everything before it goes on the changing menu.

The welcoming bar and two beautifully appointed dining rooms have a turn-of-the-century look, with carved mahogany trim, hues of soft red and gold, rich fabrics on the wall and crisp white linen on the tables.

The menu lists only 12 items, including antipasti, pasta, secondi (main entrées) and two contorni (side dishes).

We sipped good-sized icy-cold martinis ($8.50) and nibbled on fresh olive bread, which the Scarpones buy from Baker Street, as we discussed the menu. We had a lot of questions about certain ingredients and Marie answered all of them.

We began our dinner with onion soup ($6), a radicchio salad ($7.25) and a highly unusual polenta dish ($8.95). The onion soup was filled with slightly sweet, perfectly caramelized onions that floated in a light homemade stock. Scarpone added speck (Italian bacon) to his stock, which gave it a slightly smoky flavor. It arrived piping-hot along with a crisp crostini topped with slightly melted fontina.

The salad consisted of a big mound of immaculately fresh, slightly bitter radicchio tossed in a sweet dried-cherry vinaigrette. The contrast of flavors was delicious. Shavings of imported pecorino cheese imparted a marvelous salty kick.

"" But the polenta was the big surprise of the evening. The menu descriptions were mercifully short and didn’t always give the diner a clue as to how a dish might be prepared. Scarpone cooked organic polenta, mixed it with creamy taleggio – the "brie" of Italy – seasoned it just right and placed it in a pie plate. The polenta torte was baked in the oven. I received a good-sized wedge of this deliciously unusual way to prepare cornmeal and it, too, was piping hot. My plate contained a few sprigs of greens topped with huckleberry vinaigrette.

We sampled three unusually prepared entrées: ravioli ($14.25), veal cheeks ($18.95) and pork ($18.50) from the famous Niman Ranch.

The egg pasta for the ravioli was obviously made in-house, and the pillows were shaped like thin, square handkerchiefs. The filling was a dreamy puree of roasted pears, onions and fontina, and the ravioli were topped with an inspirational brown-butter sage sauce. We never had ravioli like these before.

Veal cheeks were all the rage in the early 1990s. This rump meat, when successfully braised, makes for a hearty winter dish. I particularly enjoyed this braised dish, which Scarpone paired with cavolo nero – Marie described this as black cabbage – and whipped, piping-hot garlic mashed potatoes. Scarpone likes to layer his ingredients, but Edward requested the cabbage and potatoes on the side. No problem.

My pork dish was disappointing. The menu states "Niman Ranch pork, balsamic sweet potatoes and capers." I thought I would receive pork loin but instead I got a dish that looked like pot roast, and the meat was stringy because it had not been cut across the grain. The balsamic vinegar detracted from the flavor of the sweet potatoes. My dinner arrived in a shallow soup bowl with everything swimming in a salty sauce.

We sampled both contorni on the menu. The grilled broccoli rabe ($4.50), studded with bits of toasted garlic and dressed with a touch of olive oil, was a hit. Brussels sprouts ($4.50), the tiny kind that we enjoy, were loaded with too much balsamic vinegar.

Sovalo offers a fine wine list with vintages by the glass or bottle. A number are moderately priced. We sampled a Masciarelli Montepulciano D’Abruzzo ($5.50) and Pepperwood Grove Pinot Noir ($6.25). Both went well with dinner.

From the dolci ($6.25 each), we selected a poached pear, nestled in light puff pastry and topped with rich vanilla gelato with a homemade caramel sauce. It was a fine way to end our meal.

Service was excellent, and the dining room had a number of patrons on our recent visit. The staff changed our flatware for each course, crumbed the table and filled our water glasses. No one attacked us with a pepper mill.

The menu here is original, and perhaps even a bit esoteric. Scarpone should add a few more entrées; there were only four. Still, I see the potential.

Two-and-a-half tips of the toque to Sovalo.

702 N. Second St.
Visa, MasterCard and Discover accepted
Reservations a good idea

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Jane Kiefer
Jane Kiefer, a seasoned journalist with a rich background in digital media strategies, leads South Philly Review as its Editor-in-Chief. Originally hailing from Seattle, Jane combines her outsider perspective with a profound respect for South Philly's vibrant community, bringing fresh insights and innovative storytelling to the newspaper.