Inquirer food critic, Craig LaBan, recently released his "Bells of 2005" to highlight the year's restaurant reviews. Out of over fifty new-ish restaurants reviewed in 2005, only six received above 2 bells. None received a perfect score.
Scrolling through the list, I noted a couple of restaurants I had sworn to try. At the top of that list was Sovalo; coincidentally, it also topped LaBan's list with a 3-bell review. Researching further, I found Citypaper gave the restaurant a glowing review, and included it in their year-end wrap. Lauren McCutcheon of PW, however, was unimpressed by Sovalo's hype and failed to mention it in her review of 2005. Though fine dining is too expensive a venue to debunk critical controversies, the overwhelmingly positive ring of Sovalo's reviews drew me to the Northern Liberties restaurant (I mean, we're talking 3 bells).
Sovalo has the added attraction of being Philly's next (if it isn't already) boomtown. Just peruse the community's bulletin-cum-webpage, and you'll find several places new & old that are on the dining hotlist: Pura Vida, N. 3rd, Azure. There's a bevy of great coffee shops, one for every hip clique. Lucky for the expat Californian couple who own Sovalo, they nabbed the nicest building in the area. Several massive windows protrude vertically from the ground, giving the interior the illusion of being spacious. The color scheme is appropriate for a So-Cal Italian restaurant: sleek blacks, midnight maroons, wood floors, and floral upholstered walls. Each table is dimly lit by a sole candle (bloggers beware, your photos will suck).
The monthly menu is composed of four sections: Antipasta, Pasta, Secondi, and Contorni (vegetables & sides); and this month, "Gennaio," is overwhelmed with attractve options. I appreciated the careful pairing of ingredients for the menu's several salads. Rarely has a salad selection distracted me from the rest of the appetizers. I decided upon the Blood orange, pistachio, and watercress salad (8.95), which came atop a thin mat of sliced sopressata. The salad was dressed with no more than a simple oil, but the rich oil of the roast pistachios and dripping juice of the blood orange slices provided more than enough dressing. The sopressata was wowing, due to its encompassing flavor, which included the citrus flavor of the blood orange. Want to avoid the leaf? My second choice was easily the mouth-wateringly attractive Sweet breads and chanterelles with apple mantecato and pomegranate.
For a second course, the decision fell between the heartier Secondi section (Braised pork shoulder, mushroom-stuffed quail), or the enticing Pasta one. One look at the Bartlett pear, onion, and fontina ravioli and the menu was shut. Every element I could ask for in a filled-pasta was present: a bold cheese, toothable but not tough pasta, and an intriguing filling The slightly sour caramel of the onion and the sweet pear bits caused me to sigh in delight. The pasta packets were surrounded by a brown butter sauce spiked with crisped bits of sage. (And you thought the dish couldn't get any better? $13.95)
Replacing my white pasta plate was the menu for the final course: Dolci. The selections are more complementary than supplementarty, as Sovalo has no pastry chef and therefore avoids that fields grandeur. Still..(options...). I selected the Florentine Hot Chocolate. The oblong plate came with a palm-sized cup of melted bittersweet chocolate and a duo of Amaretti and almond biscotti. The 8oz cup held an intense bittersweet chocolate liquid - no compaints on flavor - with the consistency of slightly gloopy coffee. The hot water (no milk here) only partially melted the blocks of chocolate, giving the drink its disappointing texture. Though not all reviewers were equally impressed, the low-rise Chocolate Hazelnut Torta dolloped with whipped cinnamon marscapone pleasured the palates of my two dining partners.
It's not hard to tell why Sovalo had LaBan ringing a trio bells: the location, the nuance (slates of freshly baked bread and herbed butter), and the desire (the owners make sure the waitstaff is convincingly concerned). The menu is endlessly attractive, though not particularly daring, and well-priced for the care and quality. Simply put, Sovalo is a restaurant to get excited about. Spread the word.
Location: 702 N. Second St. (Philadelphia, PA 19123)
For Reservations: 215-413-7770