I pushed into Eatalia, a half-busy BYOB with a pretty front and a doofy name, and found Frank Crocetto wearing a blue button-down and aglow. A freshly minted restaurateur’s flush, perhaps, or a product of the balmy dining room?
Coat off. Sleeves up. Can I get a mojito over here? Crocetto opened our wine instead, offered menus and read some specials. “No tuna,” he said, then said it again, just to be clear.
Crusted in sesame seeds and glazed in Triple Sec, it didn’t sound like a terrible loss to me, but the orange-liqueur-licked fish might be the out-of-the-box showstopper at this Eye-talian bistro, a neighborhood place where diners pass around their babies, family wanders in and out and the staff sucks Parliament Lights on the back stoop on Salmon Street. The tuna sounds like the wild card among the menu’s resident marsalas and alla vodkas.
Crocetto has been immersed in this kind of mom-and-pop, nostalgia-powered cooking for the past 14 years, riding the red-gravy train from La Locanda del Ghiottone in Old City to Il Cantuccio in Northern Liberties. After more than a decade working for others, he’s finally got his own place, a major accomplishment for the onetime manager/waiter, but the approach seems to have been simply importing his former employers’ hit list to the charming corner Fishtown spot previously occupied by Bistro Juliana. Crocetto even recruited an old Cantuccio cook, Ernesto Lima, as his chef at Eatalia, and the duo seems comfortable and practiced. But for a restaurant less than two months old, I’m not sure that’s a positive attribute.
The kitchen is wide open to the dining room, and I didn’t see Lima or Crocetto tasting the food before it left, which would explain the parade of underseasoned dishes. Sautéed calamari, a special, chewed like latex, a wan, warm, white-wine sauce wilting the bed of mesclun mix beneath. I reached for the salt. Fat rigatoni and flakes of smoked salmon backstroked through a brandy-cream sauce that tasted of neither. I reached for the salt. Flavorful, blush-pink risotto had all the flow of LFO, cooked so long it was able to be mounded into a hill colonized by shrimp, clams, mussels and squid. I reached for the salt.
There’s a place for restaurants specializing in this type of mid-level “Italian” fare. It’s called “New Jersey.” No disrespect to our neighbors across the river — by my estimation, that state claims the region’s finest Italian restaurant in Collingswood’s Zeppoli. But after that, it’s a sharp drop-off to an abyssal plain of out-of-season tomato Capreses, veal Francescas and chicken Giannas.
Eatalia, thankfully, doesn’t have any dishes named after anyone’s daughters or nieces or favorite saints, and the dining room’s dark wood floors and champagne walls with columns of white stenciled scrollwork broadcast the modest sort of style and class enjoyed at indie BYOBs like Matyson and Fond. Café windows wrap the corner on two sides, and when the sun’s slunk behind the skyline, wall sconces and tabletop lamps provide the light. Never mind that the latter are votives twinkling in wine goblets with vellum-paper shades resting on their rims. It’s resourceful, and kind of charming.
Eatalia’s food can be, too, despite its predictability. Things got off to a good start with roasted-vegetable pesto served alongside a basket of warm, sesame-seeded Carangi bread.
Slit and stuffed with provolone and prosciutto, the oven-blistered long hots were as wrinkly as a witch’s fingers and about as wicked. Here, too, I reached for the salt, but the bold cuts of the stinky cheese and fat-laced ham powered the peppers forward. We’ve all had stuffed long hots like this before, but when they’re well prepared, satisfaction can easily trump novelty.
The same can be said for the chicken pizzaiola, served in a brash crimson tomato sauce that — charged with briny black olives, woodsy oregano, red pepper and capers — managed to make the sanitized medallions of boneless, skinless chicken breasts appealing. I can’t even imagine how much better this dish would be with legs and thighs slow-braised in that vibrant sauce, or maybe with a pan-roasted breast on the bone tarped with salty, crispy skin. But for now, the crowd-pleasing white meat does the job.
Coffee and espresso followed, hot and strong, with a verbal dessert list not too hard to predict: cannoli, tiramisu, cheesecake, cream puffs. But Lima makes them all, admirable when many restaurants of Eatalia’s ilk simply pick up the phone and place an order from Italian-dessert giant Bindi, purveyor of the infamous sorbet-in-a-fruit-shell.
The tiramisu was exceptionally light, and came doused with cinnamon the way I like. The plump cream puffs were crowned with waves of bittersweet chocolate ganache, delicious but so rich I could eat only one. OK, maybe two.
Outside, icicle lights lacing Eatalia’s black-and-burgundy-striped awnings swayed in the soft winter wind like a grass skirt. If I lived up one of the tidy, tree-shaded streets surrounding the restaurant (as many of the diners seemed to), I might make visiting a habit — the prices are certainly weeknight-dinner and date-friendly — but Crocetto has work to do to cultivate a following from outside the immediate neighborhood, as well as to retain customers from within. This might be Eatalia, but Italy it ain’t.
EATALIA | 2723 E. Cumberland St., 215-423-6911. Open Mon.-Fri., noon-9 p.m.; Sat., 5-10 p.m. Appetizers, $7-$10; entrees, $15-$22; desserts, $7.