[ review ]
It's not the best omen when a server starts her spiel with, "First let me tell you what we're out of." Two meals. Two waitresses. Both began this way at Café 943, an affable Argentine/Italian BYOB that took two years to come into existence.
Blame the delay on a perfect storm of contractor drama and L&I red tape, but 943 is finally open: water pitchers filled to the brim, lilac Gerber daises on the tables, Ninth Street-facing windows Windexed to a crystal shine. This well-scrubbed charmer and its 42-year-old chef/owner, Pascual "Pat" Cancelliere, are ready, willing, waiting. Problem is, in the drawn-out-as- Mad Men 's-hiatus holdup, people seem to have forgotten 943 was even going to open at all.
Prime time on a weeknight, ghosts filled the buttercream-colored room. My table was the lone server's only charge, and while listing the 86'd items after a perfunctory hello, she projected the kind of gloom that comes from standing around doing nothing for hours. I couldn't blame her.
They were out of tuna. They were out of Milanesa de carne. They were out of the empanadas (Cancelliere's Buenos Aires-born mom makes them). The octopus "Don Giovanni," named for Cancelliere's Italian-born father, would not be served with favas but with less-exciting chickpeas. There was but one dessert, a walnut-studded scoop of chocolate-banana gelato from Anthony's up the block.
Maybe it was the missing dishes, the somber service, the after-dark ghostliness of the Italian Market just beyond the windows, or a combination: Though very much open for business, in many respects 943 felt like a restaurant on the brink of closing.
Then the food started coming. Lemon and parsley and silky olive oil. Fennel and garlic, sweet and smoked paprikas. Pink shrimp sautéed in some of the dishes, easy-to-love mussels steamed with others. Before I knew it, we depleted two baskets of sliced baguette (a disappearance aided by the zesty, oregano-laced salsa criolla), and 943 felt very alive.
Even without the favas, the octopus was electric. Tomato, fennel and saffron shone through the long-legged beauty's skin-deep (the grill) and topical (smoked paprika and smoked salt) smoke, and I loved how the garbanzos ruptured individually, releasing their creamy interiors like capsules of hummus. This particular prep is named for Cancelliere's father, a lifelong restaurateur, because, "At one of his pizzerias, he put this octopus on one of the pies. That was probably back in 1975. I never forgot that." I don't think I'll forget it, either.
Born in Italy and raised in Buenos Aires, Giovanni Cancelliere was ahead of his time, whether putting cephalopod on pizza or opening an Argentine steakhouse, El Gaucho, in Old City in 1978. He died in 2005, shortly after selling his last restaurant, Butcher Café, where his son had cooked, but, Cancelliere says, "Once my dad passed away, I didn't want anything to do with the restaurant business."
But like a torrid lover, the biz is tough to leave, and Cancelliere got bit by the bug while managing the Marlton outpost of Pizzicato for a pal. Before long, he reconnected with Gene LeFevre, his father's former partner and owner of the Morris House Hotel. As plans for 943 came together — LeFevre owns the bricks — Cancelliere was pulling "double duty," cooking at the hotel's M Restaurant while trying to open his own place, another reason behind 943's delay.
But good things come to those who wait: knots of housemade al dente pappardelle (Cancelliere's favorite cut) tossed with shrimp, basil and a light, bright tomato broth; crisp-enough-to-hear-it chicken Milanese, thicker than the breaded cutlets from the butchers down the street and, shy of an extra sprinkle of salt, perfect; and a thicket of twice-fried, parsley-flecked papas fritas fortified with enough garlic to repel every bloodsucker (and most dates) within a 10-mile radius. Try the fries con huevo: For a-la-minute egg scrambling, Cancelliere keeps a pan hot on a burner, rippling with garlic oil.
That's how mom always did it, and there's a lot of her influence on 943's menu. "I want to represent how we ate at home," explains Cancelliere, who grew up in the Northeast. "During the week, my mother would make the cannelloni, the ravioli, and my dad would do asado on the weekends while we watched soccer."
Just like Cancelliere's childhood dinners, his restaurant slips so seamlessly between Italian and Argentine cooking, distinctions between the culinary cousins become blurred, Inception-style. Are you in an Italian restaurant within an Argentine restaurant, or an Italian restaurant within an Argentine restaurant within an Italian restaurant? I can't say for sure, and I seem to have misplaced my spinning top.
This may be a clue: As in South America, meat is the de facto get at 943. Though the skirt steak chewed like tire treads, the grilled short ribs were tender, no small feat sans-braise, and I loved the Esposito's-procured strip "a little dirty" with extra fat, the way they do it in Argentina. Eating creamy mollejas (veal sweetbreads) was like having sweetbreads for the first time, enforced by morcilla and chorizo. Cancelliere doesn't make the darkly alluring blood sausage — he defers to neighbor D'Angelo's — but he does do his chorizo in-house, spicing coarsely ground pork and fat with nutmeg and cumin, pimentóns picante and dulce and crushed red pepper.
Except for the chorizo and morcilla (served as a pair), all these meats are available individually. Or order the parrillada juani, a $50 mixed grill of all the aforementioned that feeds two to four. Gnawing like a caveman on the short-rib bones, you might even be relieved to be the only table in the house.
Cafe 943 | 943 S. Ninth St., 215-925-0900, twitter.com/943BYOB. Lunch served Fri.-Sun., noon-4 p.m.; dinner served Tue.-Thu., 5-10 p.m. and Fri.-Sat., 5-11 p.m. Appetizers, $6-$11; entrées, $16-$22 and $50; desserts, $5.