On a South Philly corner, two local ladies have been holding it down since 2003
These are the facts of the case, and they are undisputed: After 32 years as a couple, MaryAnn Brancaccio and Maria Vanni opened a contemporary Italian bistro—August—on a pretty corner of Columbus Square Park and named it after the month they met. Vanni handled the front of the house. Brancaccio, who’d worked at the Loews Hotel and Frangelica’s, cooked. Success followed. These are the facts of the case, and they are undisputed.
But that was 2003, back when saying you were moving to South Philly elicited confused expressions rather than requests for your realtor’s digits. What of August 2009?
I have to admit, when I pulled up the menu online, my expectations weren’t terribly high. Not because Brancaccio’s internationally inflected Italian dishes didn’t sound delicious, but because if I were feeling nostalgic, I could have the exact same dinner today as I had the very first time I visited this BYOB. Tilapia over scallion risotto with lime? That was my entree one balmy spring evening back when Bobby Abreu still played for the Phillies.
August subscribes to the if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it school, but Brancaccio definitely has the chops to push further, evidenced by her tender artichoke hearts sauteed in white wine with sun-dried tomatoes, cannellini beans and leeks. It was a dish of refreshing tangs and sharp angles, accentuated by a view of new cherry blossoms and a generous green drizzle of unfiltered extra-virgin olive oil. I sopped the latter up with the excellent bread from Faragalli’s bakery, just down the street.
Former PW writer Lauren McCutcheon also described a very similar version of these artichokes when she reviewed August in 2003, as well as Brancaccio’s roasted peppers with aged Asiago. They’re still on the menu too, and though I didn’t have them, their smoky-sweet aroma perfumed the entire 34-seat restaurant.
With earth-toned walls, slate-gray ceilings and black waffle-weave tablecloths so soft you’ll want to Project Runway them into a robe, August’s cozy, romantic ambiance hasn’t changed much either, and that’s a good thing. The menu, though, could use a bit more variety. But that’s a request coming from a food critic, not from the repeat customers that have sustained this BYOB all these years.
No doubt devotees come here expressly for those artichokes, and for the tilapia Brancaccio has perfected over the last six years. It was as delicious as that mild fish can possibly be, gently pan-seared till its edges got just crisp and brown enough to introduce some texture to the moist fillet. A touch of cream enriched the risotto beneath—so rich but somehow light with the bright additions of green onion and cilantro. If there was lime, as the menu promised, the citrus was having an unnaturally quiet moment.
A special of rigatoni with spicy and sweet Maglio sausage and mini beef-veal-and-pork meatballs were good but hardly extraordinary, not to mention heavy for the spring. Perhaps something lighter, fresher, more in the spirit of Brancaccio’s roasted beet salad? We’ve all seen this ubiquitous starter a thousand times, but it’s rarely as inspired as the one served at August. In the flickering candlelight, the earthy beets slicked with syrupy balsamic glittered like cut amethysts. Ricotta salata and pistachios so green you’d mistake them for peas balanced the beets’ sweetness and lent each bite a salty crescendo.
That careful balance of sugar proved telltale for not-too-sweet desserts like the dreamy, creamy cheesecake (Vanni’s Aunt Lena’s cinnamon-dusted recipe) and a classic affogato. Brancaccio’s father, a chef, used to take his espresso this way, topped with vanilla ice cream and Sambuca. At August, the espresso is La Colombe, the ice cream (occasionally) made by in-house by Vanni and the ’Buca snuck into clouds of fresh whipped cream.
By the time I paid the check (an affordable $86 with tip), a mix of suburban empty nesters and biracial hipster couples had snapped up every table in the place. It was a weeknight. Right before Easter. In the thick of Great Depression Part Deux. On a night when countless waitresses were likely twiddling their thumbs, watching tumbleweeds roll through empty dining rooms.
Any restaurant thriving like August, especially after six years, is clearly doing something right.