Last month, when chef/owner Alberto DelBello and his wife, Denise, transformed their 16-year-old Italian Rittenhouse eatery number two, Il Portico, into Tiramisu (1519 Walnut St., 215-587-7000, tiramisuphiladelphia.com), it wasn’t that they wanted something new. They were looking to recreate something old — and familiar, in terms of a unique culinary tradition.
DelBello opened the original location of Tiramisu on Fifth Street off South in 1991, coming from a background in Manhattan’s kosher-restaurant scene. “Society Hill then was this amazing place with the vibe of both SoHo and the Upper East Side,” says DelBello of moving into the area. Though he closed Tiramisu in 2010, DelBello never forgot the cooking that made Tiramisu unique: the cuisine of his Jewish-Italian upbringing, a tradition stemming from 18th-century Roman Jews living in Portico d’ Ottavia, a walled Roman ghetto.
In Portico d’ Ottavia, the meals were not prepared by chefs. DelBello says that the people making the food were laborers: shoemakers and bricklayers. “Their simple style of cooking endured, and my family picked up on their traditions and recipes,” says DelBello.
“I’m part of that 200-year-old history,” says DelBello of a cuisine based on earthen simplicity and pragmatism. “They cooked with what was available.” DelBello is talking about eggplants, artichokes and olives, among other Middle Eastern and Mediterranean produce available in the markets of Rome.
At Tiramisu, eggplant and artichokes, along with tomatoes and zucchini from DelBello’s Bensalem farm, play a hearty part of the vegetable-heavy menu. The antipasti are a treasure unto themselves. In particular there’s the penultimate Roman-Jewish dish, carciofi alla giudia, or artichokes in the Jewish style: a simple preparation where artichokes are lightly grilled in oil with half a lemon.
Then there is matzagna, a Passover lasagna dish formerly served at Il Portico restaurant that DelBello has reintroduced at Tiramisu. “Ah, a very old recipe and one that, though simple, requires patience to keep delicate and light,” laughs DelBello. The story goes that the Roman Jews didn’t have fresh bread available, so they used the hard stuff: matzoh. To keep it kosher for Passover, they layered matzoh instead of pasta and added in whatever was on hand: “Maybe chopped greens a la pesto, maybe cheese, and then they added a béchamel sauce,” says DelBello. “Simple food or not, it has to be right.”