Generally, with eating places, I construct up expectations which can be virtually unattainable to fulfill. I’ve been burned too many instances. The probabilities of this occurring are typically slim, however enhance tenfold when a spot is beneficial to me again and again. When I discovered myself driving an hour and a half to Collingswood’s Zeppoli, I saved asking myself, “Will this actually be value it?”
In hindsight, this was a daft query. Nonetheless, as I drove by means of visibly-impairing rainfall on a dreary Jersey Turnpike evening, I couldn’t assist however marvel if this tiny BYO would really stay as much as the hype. You probably have dined at Zeppoli— only a stone’s throw from bustling Philadelphia— I in all probability don’t have to inform you that not solely did the expertise meet my expectations, but it surely shattered them. It left me asking myself: “Is Philly’s finest Italian restaurant in New Jersey?”
After all, Philly is rife with Italian fare in its personal proper— I don’t imply to be crass and counsel in any other case. Nonetheless, the general bundle at Zeppoli warrants the query. Apart from, this restaurant places forth a feat that will be thought-about miraculous for any metropolis within the nation.
Zeppoli in Collingswood, NJ brings one of the vital intimately particular eating experiences round. I implore those that admire nice meals to dine right here— as a result of in the end, it received’t be your final.
This restricted BYO opened in 2011, bringing what the crew refers to as a “small, romantic and really intimate” setting. I couldn’t describe the house higher myself. Upon strolling by means of the discreet entrance door, you’re instantly hit with not a number stand or coat rack, however tables. There may be merely no house for fluff. In entrance of you is a tiny room that homes all 35 seats (not together with patio seating when climate permits). In the back of that room is an open kitchen— additionally fairly small— and everything of the structure leaves you questioning if this constructing was even constructed with the aim of ever internet hosting a restaurant. Most likely not, however I don’t imply this in a nasty method. Zeppoli’s environment exudes old-world appeal.
Their focus is on easy and traditional Italian delicacies with a focus on the meals of Sicily. Chef/Proprietor, Joseph Baldino goals to convey consolation to visitors’ plates and credit a go to to Anna Tasca Lanza’s farm in Sicily (a cooking faculty centered across the meals and tradition of Sicily) because the inspiration for Zeppoli. His stint as Chef de Delicacies at considered one of Philly’s best eating places, Vetri, provides to Baldino’s adorned resume. It was at these two locations that he conceived what would come to be often known as one of many best Italian eating places in an space that’s something however scarce on the delicacies.
Zeppoli feels distinctive from different eating places within the space. It gives one thing that’s inexplicable in phrases— a sense that’s finest conveyed by experiencing it for your self. Chances are high that if the doorways are open for service, Zeppoli is at capability. Due to this, I felt fortunate to safe a reservation for 2 on a Saturday night.
Zeppoli’s greatness is constructed on the meals and repair, however it’s sustained by the ambiance. The dim lighting, seen kitchen, unassuming wood tables (and every part else that goes into making this place its personal) work in tandem to create a dreamy eating expertise. One which I’d fortunately endure one other torrential downpour for a second and third time.
Upon sitting, we’re handed a menu with 5 appetizers, 5 pastas, 5 entrees and a handful of desserts. The server tells us of the specials for the night, in addition to the 2 eating choices that Zeppoli gives. You will have a selection between a three-course menu and a four-course menu. The previous is priced at $55 and contains an appetizer, entree-sized pasta and a dessert, whereas the latter hoists a $75 price ticket and contains an appetizer, half-portion of pasta, entree and a dessert. For each the standard and amount, these are well-priced menus, with the four-course choice seeming virtually like a steal of kinds. So, we went with it.
For starters, we reveled within the Finocchi Salsiccia (fennel sausage) in addition to the shrimp with beans. The sausage was loaded with intense fennel taste and contained inside a pure casing. When sausage is poorly made, it’s simple to inform– the inside lacks construction and the flavour is off. Oftentimes, eating places don’t even hassle making their very own for this very purpose. Nonetheless, at Zeppoli, it’s apparent that an knowledgeable is making this sausage. The casing snaps while you chunk it and the juices from the pork marry with the fragrant fennel taste on the again of your palate. As you make your method by means of the dish, it evolves. By the point you get to the broccoli rabe, it has soaked up sufficient pork taste to turn into a standout dish of its personal. This starter felt like the proper introduction to Chef Baldino’s idea— one which revolves across the concept of simplicity.
Our second starter, the shrimp with beans, was a tad extra convoluted than the identify would possibly counsel, however nonetheless easy at its core just like the plate beside it. Complete shrimp had been sauteed with lemon, garlic and parsley earlier than being rested atop a mattress of cannellini beans. Usually talking, I don’t order shrimp typically. I’m bored by the traditional shrimp cocktail, and even the now over-done “sauteed garlic shrimp” which often consists of dozens of tiny, shell-less shrimp bathed in a pungent broth.
I need heads on my shrimp. I need the shell left on. When I’m executed, I wish to suck the heads clear— assuring that not even an oz of shellfish essence is left behind in waste. It could sound silly, however to me, there’s a clear distinction in taste between shrimp that’s cooked this fashion versus one that’s stripped of half of its id earlier than ever touching the warmth of a pan.
The meat of the shrimp was tender and effectively seasoned. The beans had been delicate in texture and hearty in taste, and the cooking liquid that surrounded the plate was an ideal match for Zeppoli’s house-made bread, which I used to wipe the plate clear with. As I picked the heads up with my naked arms and scavenged for any remaining shrimp taste, I used to be something however embarrassed. Primal as it could be, if somebody desires to stare at me basking in that glory, so be it.
Then got here pasta, and a few robust selections. Deciding on simply two pastas was simply the toughest selection of the night, half joking about ordering all of them.
First up, Rigatoni alla Disgraziata— translating to “the poor wretch’s rigatoni” is a dish that completely encapsulates the essence of Sicilian fare and, in the end, the strategy to Baldini’s cooking. Tomato and eggplant are cooked collectively, creating what’s a primary however deep-flavored sauce. The dish is completed with freshly grated ricotta salata (a salty exhausting cheese from Sicily) and toasted breadcrumbs (a typical pasta topping in traditionally poorer components of Italy).
The sensation that eggplant can depart you with after being so delicately mixed with tomatoes is indescribable. The eggplant— like a sponge— soaks up any flavors that come its method. Ricotta salata brings a wanted salinity to the dish, whereas breadcrumbs convey dueling textures of crunch and softness. The crumbs nearing the highest of the plate had been crisp and sharp, whereas those nearer to the sauce’s coronary heart soaked up the moisture, rehydrating themselves with the flavors of the dish’s entirety. Mezze rigatoni was assigned to take all these working components and rework them right into a composed dish. I used to be floored and rightfully so; I used to be sitting right here consuming a dish that mainly meant “the poor bitch’s pasta” and was smiling whereas doing so.
Good Italian cooking is enigmatic in that method.
Then, got here the Gnocculii alla’ Argentiera. Delicate ricotta and spinach dumplings which can be bathed in brown butter and sage, all whereas donning a crown of grated caciocavallo cheese— an historic Sicilian cheese whose first written recipe dates again to 500 B.C. The dumplings themselves had been just like the ricotta gnudi that you simply see popping up on menus all through the state, albeit placing lots of them to disgrace. Creamy ricotta cheese spills out when minimize into and specks of spinach beautify the inside. The brown butter is nice and full with crispy, chip-like leaves of sage. And the cheese is luscious, however sharp— offering a wanted distinction to the general richness of the dish’s entire.
I watched like a hawk because the server navigated by means of the cramped labyrinth of the eating room with our entrees— the savory aromas driving the air as he set the plates down.
I dug into the Coniglio Pizzaiola first— a tomato stewed rabbit with roasted potatoes and a heavy dosage of contemporary oregano and rosemary. I typically inform folks that rabbit is my favourite protein. Whether or not that is true or not is neither right here nor there, however what I do know is that I virtually all the time order it when seeing it on a menu. It’s one thing I ate typically throughout my time at The Culinary Institute of America, in addition to my time working in Manhattan. Nonetheless, elsewhere, it will possibly typically be tougher to search out. Blasphemous, I do know. The folks have but to catch on.
So, I dug into the fork-tender meat and relished in what was one of the vital comforting bites I’ve taken in fairly a while. Barely crisp potatoes married with the hare-flavored tomato sauce. The herbaceousness from each the rosemary and oregano was a lot wanted. May I add that contemporary oregano is a completely completely different entity than its dried counterpart. I discover individuals are averse to oregano at instances, however what they’re actually disliking is decade-old dried oregano that’s been sitting behind a darkish cupboard being sprinkled on their pizza as an afterthought. It’s poignant, and considerably gross. When oregano is skillfully added, although, it may be great. As anticipated, it was simply that.
My bowl had a rabbit leg and two items of saddle in it. Just like the shrimp earlier than it, I didn’t hesitate to choose it up by the bone and get extra acquainted with my dinner— I feel that may be a good factor.
Shock, we additionally ordered the rooster. I all the time do at eating places of this caliber. Zeppoli’s model supplied a roasted half rooster with contemporary lemon and cippolini agrodolce— a candy and bitter condiment discovered all through Italy. There are lots of of kinds, many containing some model of vinegar and sugar. On this case, the saccharine cippolini onions are roasted within the stuff. What this creates is a candy, caramelized taste that has a bitter chunk to again it up. Onions as a facet— it doesn’t get higher than that.
The rooster itself was understandably divine. Tender, braise-y leg meat and agency, moist breast meat had been each right here to play. The glass-like pores and skin was laced with garlic and rosemary. From what I’ve gathered, Zeppoli spit-roasts their chickens slowly over the course of three hours. The evenly cooked and supple meat is a direct results of this methodology.
By this level, I had slowed down tremendously. Even unable to complete my entree, which left me feeling like a failure. However, it was for a superb trigger: Dessert.
A chocolate torte and the restaurant’s namesake, zeppolis, are what was on the menu for our last course of the night.
The torte was made with darkish chocolate and almond. The nut’s taste was infused all through everything of the cake, which was dense with a lacy high. Think about your favourite field of brownie combine. The one which brings you again to your childhood. Now, add high-quality chocolate in addition to nutty almond taste. That was this dish. It encapsulated nostalgia for me— one thing I discover to be particularly unimaginable in desserts.
The zeppolis, basically fried donut of kinds, had been stuffed with chocolate hazelnut unfold. The dough itself had a superb taste to it and a noteworthy construction on its inside. The outside was golden brown and crisp. I may go on for some time about what made this technically nice, however on the finish of the day, It’s fried dough and Nutella— what extra would you like?
Accompanying each desserts was complementary struffoli, that are marble-sized dough balls glazed in honey and citrus. They’re completed with rainbow sprinkles. In lots of Italian-American households, these are a staple for the vacations. By giving visitors this on the finish of the meal, Zeppoli is actually saying “You might be household and you’re welcome again.” Or not less than that’s how I took it. As full as I used to be, I ate the struffoli too. It could’ve been impolite to not.
Zeppoli – The Hype is Actual
For effectively over a 12 months now, folks have been nagging me about making the journey to this 35-seat BYO simply throughout the river from Philly. Effectively, I lastly did and I can say with utmost certainty that I will likely be making the journey once more. Whether or not you’re in Northern New Jersey or deep within the coronary heart of Philadelphia, Zeppoli is definitely worth the automotive experience. You might be assured an incredibly marvelous meal, with the promise of an expertise that’s like no different. The eating room at Zeppoli felt like house, the servers felt like my associates, and the meals was impossibly nice. There may be nothing extra I may ask for in a eating expertise than that.
Regardless of its dimension, Zeppoli is a well-oiled machine of a restaurant. Its knowledgeable employees places on a efficiency that’s mesmerizing and hospitable. For the 2 hours you’ll spend right here, you may have been transported away from Collingswood and despatched spiraling into what seems like a dream sequence. That is no nightmare— fairly the alternative, actually. As plates slide earlier than you and away from you, nothing else issues. Whether or not it’s head-on shrimp or a stewed rabbit, Chef Baldino and the crew behind Zeppoli make magic occur with each single meal.
To me, that may be a priceless expertise.