La Collina


The Philadelphia area is filled with culinary legends, but no one has done more for authentic Italian cucina than the late Inez Gaetano. She owned a gem of a restaurant, located in a brownstone on Walnut Street, and nurtured many future chefs, including Benny Munoz, who came here from Puerto Rico 46 years ago. It was a delightful surprise to discover he has been at the helm of the kitchen at La Collina for 20 years.

The restaurant sits high above the Schuylkill Expressway in Belmont Hills. I don’t know how many times I’ve passed it on the way to King of Prussia and finally, Edward, Mom and I decided to dine there.

With time springing forward earlier than usual, we were able to enjoy a view of the river in natural light while seated at a roomy table covered with white linen. Edward and I sipped our customary martinis and discussed our day.

The menu is 1950s’ continental with a strong nod to Italian. I like this kind of food — straightforward dishes prepared with top ingredients.

We munched on warm bread and decided on dinner. Mom ordered a bowl of minestrone ($5.50), Edward went for calamari fritti ($8.50) and I wanted to sample vongole casino ($8.95). The minestrone was brimming with fresh vegetables, including shredded cabbage, which was a welcome twist. The stock was homemade and not one bit salty.

We’ve eaten fried calamari all over town and this version was outstanding. The squid was tender inside and nice and crisp on the outside and the homemade marinara sauce was divine and rich, benefitting from proper reduction.

Clams casino are a favorite from my childhood and here I received six littleneck clams. They were left whole — the way I prefer them. The bacon was crisp and I liked the inclusion of fresh, chopped herbs.

We shared the chopped salad ($8.95), which arrived on three plates filled with fresh lettuce, radicchio, endive and tomatoes. Munoz placed a whole endive leaf on the side and topped it with a calamata olive, which was visually appealing and delicious.

Mom decided on gnocchi in a Gorgonzola sauce ($9 appetizer, $16.95 entree). The waiter cautioned the dish was rich, but Edward jokingly said, "We’ve been around." His favorite veal cutlet ($21.95) harks back to his childhood. He does not like it topped with cheese and tomato sauce and asked for it plain. I wanted seafood and realized I had not had classic linguini con pesce ($23.95) in a long time.

The gnocchi were outstanding: handmade, light and fluffy. They literally melted in our mouths. The sauce was prepared with imported Gorgonzola from Lombardy. (Don’t think for a minute Munoz would use domestic cheese in this dish.) The appetizer portion was generous so some was toted home.

The veal was a top-quality, large cutlet pounded thin, coated in crumbs and flash-fried to an enticing golden color. I squeezed on some lemon and enjoyed a taste. A small dish of Brussels sprouts came on the side.

Most restaurants use dry, boxed pasta when making linguine with fish, but Munoz made his own, which served as the base for immaculately fresh shrimp, jumbo lump crabmeat and top-neck clams. This was a fine combination of tastes and textures. Usually chefs toss in mussels, but I liked the chunks of sweet crabmeat. The white-wine sauce was properly reduced and contained a bit of butter.

To complement our fine dinner, we ordered a lovely 2004 Centine Banfi ($29), which is a combination of sangiovese, merlot and cabarnet.

Service was excellent. The only disappointment was the dessert cart. Dolce at La Collina is not made at the restaurant and the sweets did not entice us.

After we paid the bill, we asked to meet the chef. It was only after dinner I discovered Gaetano mentored Munoz. We chatted about the old days and the glorious food served at Gaetano’s. Munoz introduced us to Enzo Valent, who is from Venice and owns La Collina. He brought us a dish of biscotti, which ended a lovely evening.

If you have never been to La Collina, book a table and enjoy the fine cucina from the kitchen of Munoz.

Three tips of the toque to La Collina.

La Collina
37-41 Ashland Ave.
Belmont Hills
Credit cards accepted
Closed Sundays
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.