[ review ]
Food writers love labels. This is why we're always trying to group, classify and define trends 12 months at a time: The Year of Barbecue, The Year of the Cupcake. As lazy and easily exploitable as this device may be, sometimes themes emerge that even the most righteous among us cannot ignore. Take 2011, The Year of the Dumb Restaurant Name.
Chenango, Llama Tooth, Chicken.Org — what were your owners thinking? Clearly, the same thing as Beyoncé and Jay-Z when they named their daughter Blue Ivy. Falling in with 2011's oddly named ranks is chef/co-owner Arthur Cavaliere's In Riva, but unlike its weirdly coined comrades, it makes sense once Cavaliere throws down a little lesson d'Italiano: "It means 'along the banks.'"
This stylish East Falls pizzeria and antipasti spot does indeed dwell along the banks — the views of the Schuylkill River, a highway of liquid jade just across Kelly Drive, are expansive out on In Riva's patio. Right now, night comes too soon to appreciate them, but once April arrives, al fresco tables will be set, and guests will toast spring with effervescent Frigo cocktails, a delightfully bittersweet union of white wine, Campari and orange soda.
The location is prime, and two other restaurants, Verge and Franco's Trattoria, had respectable runs at this address before closing down, leaving developer/building owner Mark Sherman (he's a partner in In Riva) with a vacancy. He filled it with Cavaliere, a longtime family friend who'd just returned to Philly from cooking in D.C. and consulting in Michigan. Locally, Cavaliere has been part of the Starr and Garces empires, but he got his start in nearby Manayunk, bussing tables at River City Diner.
Sherman and Cavaliere stripped down Franco's dining room and furnished its cinder-block skeleton with caged fans, laboratory barstools, an architectural mural of the nearby Falls Bridge and other industrial accessories. Crowded together on a wooden platform suspended from the ceiling by brass chains, vintage desk lamps create a dramatic secondhand chandelier above a long feast table constructed of salvaged barn doors. The lights' necks crane over the sides like nosy old geese, eyeing diners passing around spread-filled jars and boards piled with thick toasted bread.
Cavaliere's menu is designed for sharing, broken into sections of salumi, cheese, antipasti, salads, pizza and "vasi" (jars), the aforementioned build-your-own bruschette. The pepperonata vasi brought ribbons of red, orange and yellow bell peppers packed into a hinge-top container with bits of blue crab. Cavaliere stews the peppers for four hours in a vinegary tomato-fennel marinara, a method that turns them tender and acquiescent but ultimately fails to develop their innate sweetness.
Minor miscalibrations like this prevent In Riva from reaching its full potential. Slick pork belly arrived over saccharine apricot mostarda. Tender agrodolce pork ribs were tight, but neither agro (sour) nor dolce (sweet). Stiff Greek yogurt swirled with blackberry preserves wasn't the best dip for zeppole that had all the structure of bubble gum. Lemon curd was slightly more forgiving.
Cavaliere's condiments and saucing weren't always suspect, evidenced by the vivacious golden-raisin gremolata scattered over wintry braised beef cheeks, and there was plenty more to like at In Riva. Glazed with marsala wine, the cheeks also testified to Cavaliere's masterful handling of meat, an impressive thread connecting the heartier dishes here, from the aforementioned ribs and belly (cured with citrus and garlic, confit-ed, pressed, seared and roasted in the oven) to the airy "Mommy's Meatballs."
"Saturday morning in my house growing up, my mom would have four pans of meatballs going at a time," says Cavaliere. "I helped her make meatballs every weekend of my life." Practice makes perfect. Pork and beef are the ground meats here. Parsley and cheese add flavor. Milk and fresh bread (never crumbs) lend lightness. Veal jus, woodsy with sage, laps at the orbs, rolled and cooked to order, and attendant croutons browned in prosciutto fat.
The meatballs, though praiseworthy, aren't the main attraction at this riverside rendezvous: That honor belongs to In Riva's pizzas. Stretched 12 inches, they puff, crisp and blister in two minutes in the oak-burning oven, the centerpiece of the snug open kitchen. Up in the dome, 1100 degrees of heat seethe and hover like captive harpies, radiating the brash angles of the superior margherita's raw San Marzano tomato sauce, sweetening the cippolini onions on a pie of the same name. The former is classic and the latter is new-school (with Brussels sprouts, sharp provolone, pancetta and chèvre), and I still couldn't decide which I liked better after devouring three slices of each — though I can still remember the cippolini pie's spatter of aged balsamic, and how the vinegar's time-won sweetness and acidity cut bloodlessly through the pie's considerable fattiness.
I also couldn't choose which of the mini cannoli I liked best: lemony ricotta, olive-oil-enriched chocolate or pale-green pistachio streaked with nutmeg and cinnamon. I'd love to linger over these diminutive desserts on the patio with an espresso, some good company and a view of the water, but there'll be plenty of time for that later. While In Riva's name might denote outdoorsy, it's a restaurant suitable for all seasons.
In Riva | 4116 Ridge Ave., 215-438-4848, in-riva.com. Dinner served Sun. and Tue.-Thu., 5-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5-11 p.m.; brunch served Sat.-Sun., 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; closed Mon. Salumi, $11-$18; cheese, $14-$19; vasi (bruschette jars), $9-$12; salads, $10-$12; antipasti, $9-$13; pizza, $13-$19.