When Chef Townsend Wentz opened his eponymous French restaurant on East Passyunk Avenue two years ago, it immediately became a fine addition to the neighborhood. Wentz, who worked at The Fountain at the Four Seasons Hotel under Jean-Marie “Papa” LaCroix also turned McCrossen’s, a Fairmount pub, into a French-inspired place for fine food and drink. Townsend, the restaurant, 1623 E. Passyunk Ave., featured French cuisine at its best. Now, Wentz has turned his culinary attention to Italy.
A Mano, which means “by hand” in Italian, opened several months ago in a former grocery store in Fairmount. The man in charge is Chef Michael Millon, who had already worked with Wentz. The casual restaurant is BYOB, but it does not take reservations or credit cards.
We were fortunate we did not have to wait for a table. The place has a brightly lit open kitchen, calming green and white walls, and a friendly staff.
Homemade focaccia and soft butter helped to calm my appetite. Our server opened our wine, and we perused the menu.
The bill of fare clearly explains how Italians enjoy dinner: Antipasti, primi, and secondi.
Seared Spanish octopus ($15) was a warm and welcoming dish to begin our culinary journey to Italy. The octopus was beautifully seared and cut into bite-size pieces. Tiny cockles, still in their dark shells, played off against the spicy bits of chorizo and tender white beans. Octopus can be chewy but Millon’s version hit the mark. Gremolata, which is grated lemon rind, added a lively, slightly acidic flavor to this starter.
Tripe ($12) may be an acquired taste. It is rather bland so the ingredients used to create a complete dish help make it the main attraction. Millon slow-braised the tripe in a spicy tomato sauce (I want the recipe), with guanciale, or pig cheeks, and added chickpeas for texture. The combination of flavors and textures was spot on. We used pieces of bread to sop up the rich sauce.
Primi is the pasta course. We selected cauliflower mezzaluna ($14) and potato-goat cheese gnocchi ($15). Mezzaluna, which means “half-moon” in Italian, is also a chopping instrument used throughout Europe. When Millon did was make “pasta” from half-moons of cauliflower, cooked them so they retained a bit of crunch, and topped them with a sauce prepared with brown butter and balsamic vinegar. He added almonds and bits of crushed amaretti for a touch of sweetness. This sauce was culinary genius. The use of almonds is often Sicilian, but I think he created the sauce in A Mano’s kitchen. Bravo.
Blending potatoes with tangy goat cheese to produce light pillowy gnocchi was another inspiring dish. Basil gave the little pasta pillows an eye-appealing hue. Toasted pine nuts and basil produce a tasty pesto, and this one succeeded beautifully. English peas are still in season. Pasta and peas is a classic dish. The addition of speck added a slightly salty taste that was not overwhelming.
The braised pork shank ($30) was tender but a little dry in spots. It was placed on a pool of rich, creamy, homestyle polenta, like Nona would make. But instead of the usual addition of Parmesan, Millon knew creamy ripe taleggio would be a perfect substitution in this dish. Pickled fennel added another flavor dimension to the entrée.
I often order an entrée because the use of a specific vegetable is included. Baby artichokes are in season. Millon fried them to a splendid crispy state and used them as an accent for the skate wing. I make skate at home. I always dust it with seasoned flour before it hits the hot pan of olive oil and butter. This version ($28) was pan seared with salt and pepper. I found it too salty, so I asked for the preparation of a second order. It was nicely seasoned this time and topped with tiny bits of sweet red peppers and caper berries. All it required was a squeeze of fresh lemon juice.
Service was excellent. Servers and assistant servers clear and serve and keep a perfect pace for a fine meal.
I particularly liked the menu. There are 17 items that comprise antipasti, primi and secondi. Three sides are also available.
A Mano will definitely serve the Fairmount and Logan Square neighborhoods well. But I suspect all of you who enjoy Wentz’s marvelous French flavors at Townsend will want to select a bottle of fine Italian wine and enjoy what Millon and his staff have created.
Three-and-a-half tips of the toque to A Mano. ■
2244 Fairmount Ave.
Photo by Tina Garceau