Overrated is a term usually saved for athletes or cult films, not restaurants. But, never say never, Melograno is overrated. A decline into bloated reviews is conceivable, isn't it? The restaurant opens in 2003 with a full head of gastro-steam and follows with a strech of inspired dining, pleasing magazines and local papers. Fast forward to Summer 2005, the critics stop showing. The staff is satisfied with their popularity, and the locals still fill the place everynight from 6:30 to close. Why not let loose a bit?
I made the decision to go to this Toscan BYOB, despite the notoriously lengthy table-wait due to their no reservation policy, because of the notably positive reviews (not least of them from Bon Appetit and Craig LaBan). Most of these reviews date from over a year ago, even EGullet and Chowhound posts are months old. Maybe others have caught on.
We were seated quickly thanks to our 6:20 arrival time (it's a summer Friday night mind you). The crowd was yuppie to suave middle-agers. Conversations appeared less concerned with the pasta's tooth-ability and more about weekend gettaways. (Although one table chatted about Rrestaurateur Neil Stein's demise.) One of two order-taking waitrons, our waitress wasn't peppy, but she was adequate at reading the specials and fielding questions. Some of the waitstaff seems unconcerned.
The dinner started out without mishap. In fact, my breaded and deep-fried chicken livers (fegatini di pollo $8) were excellent. Crispy and lightly mustardy, the oblong cutlets were piquant and satisfying. The bed of sweet onions and stewed tomatoes was also sharply flavorful. However, the multigrain bread, served with a weak olive oil, was disappointing. The carraway seeds insinuated their flavor much too imprudently.
My male dining comrade had a wonderfully visual and toothsome antipasta of one grilled artichoke surrounded by deftly charbroiled scallops. The deflowered artichoke came with it's long stem attached, giving it the look of a short ulna. The scallops' flavor weren't subverted by any heavy butter sauce, just a little olive oil, and were perfectly cooked through. Let's just say we were all pretty excited for the next course.
At this time of the night, the tiny corner location was crowded, with the final seats being occupied outdoors. With packed quarters comes noisey conversation. Romantic and quiet Melograno is not. At times I couldn't gauge my dining comrades' responses without a double-take. I even found myself cupping my ear and leaning forward to hear the dessert selection. "WHAT KIND OF CAKE WAS THAT AGAIN?"
On to the main course. If I hadn't ordered the fried chicken livers during the first course, I likely would have turned to the meats section of the menu, which occupies one of the five pages in the little black booklet (the other four: antipastas, salads, pastas, and fish). The prune, walnut and fig-stuffed quail sounded delicious, and judging from the satisfied smile of another diner, it was. But, wanting to try something different, I went with the beet and marscapone-filled ravioli surrounded by a white wine and olive sauce. I rarely, if ever, get pasta out, mostly because it's a dinner staple in my household.
After an agreeable wait-period, the raviolis ($14) arrived as four or five 3 x 3 inch squares with a pink center. Now, because this isn't a four or five course meal, and because the raviolis weren't an appetizer, I felt justified in expecting more substance. The plate was awkwardly spare - no sides anchored the few raviolis - when compared to the other entrees I spied around the restaurant. I may not have noticed the meager portion if the raviolis were good. The pasta was too tough around the edges, and the beet-filling, altough visually appealing, completely masked the flavors of the cheese and oils with its tart-sweet flavor.
I should also mention that the supremely popular papperadelle, with truffle oil splashed wild mushrooms, toasted walnuts, and pecorino slices, was al dente. While it was a much more agreeable portion and a better dish overall than the ravioli, the pasta had too many splashes of truffle oil, which filled my nostrils and allowed only mushroom and truffle to be tasted. Yes, less truffle oil.
The apple torte I had for dessert was cute, and the flavor and texture were pleasing - I would be satisfied with the torte if I had made it. Still, some vanilla ice cream or gelato would have been nice, and the torte's inside should have been less lemon flavored and more apple.
I wasn't looking for bountiful garnishing or gastro-flourishes at Melograno, I understand this is Toscana bistro fare, but I was expecting bountiful flavor. I suppose that other menu choices would have left me with a much more positive opinion, but the point is I didn't choose those other items. At a great restaurant, all choices should be smile-enducing.
Location: 2201 Spruce St. [No reservations, some outdoor seating available]
Italian - Ava (at 518 S. 3rd Street Philadelphia)
Sovalo (702-704 N. Second St.)
BYOBs (not too distant) -
Matyson (19th, below Market St.)
Audrey Claire (276 S. 20th, intersects with Spruce)