Understated BYOB serves terrific Italian, with 'a twist'
Posted on Fri, Oct. 31, 2008
By Lari Robling
Philadelphia Daily News
THERE ARE some superstars in Philly's BYOB lineup that get national as well as local attention.
Recently I was reminded of a quiet South Philly steady hitter - August, on 13th Street at Wharton.
Owners Maria Vanni and MaryAnn Brancaccio celebrated the restaurant's fifth anniversary recently,so it seemed like a good time to re-evaluate what is obviously a favorite of many, despite its relative obscurity.
Or as Chef Brancaccio wryly notes, "No one comes to August because of me, so the food has to shine."Vanni adds personality to the front of the house, while Brancaccio puts her stamp on a menu that is billed as "a twist on classic Italian."You won't find typical south Philly red-gravy fare here. And Brancaccio notes that the menu has been changed to keep all the entrees under $19 in acknowledgment of diners' shrinking wallets.
We began our twist with the Salmon Croquette appetizer special ($10), served with a lime chile sauce. The croquette was worthy of grandma, while the lime chile sauce gave it a contemporary zip.
The Pan-Seared Sea Scallops ($10) were cooked to perfect caramelization and served over greens with a ginger vinaigrette. There was a nice balance between the acid in the dressing and the natural sweetness of the scallops.
One of the hit dishes of the evening was the Roasted Red Peppers with anchovies, capers and hunks of Asiago cheese ($9).Full of flavor and silky smooth, the peppers didn't need anything else, but August serves bread from the famed Faragalli Bakery, a few blocks away. This dense, chewy, crusty bread is my favorite, and great for sopping up the pepper juice. With a little Chianti, that's an entire meal right there.
Rigatoni Bolognese ($17), a rich mixture of ground beef and veal with tomato sauce, scored for classic Italian. The ever-so-slightly al dente ribbed rigatoni held onto the sauce like Philly pitcher Brad Lidge's grip on a fast ball.
The Pork Chop ($18) is one of August's signature dishes and has been on the menu since the restaurant's inception. The chop was cooked simply and served with velvety mashed sweet potatoes and broccoli so tender even a president would like it.Sitting on a bed of scallion risotto and topped with sauteed spinach, the Pan-Seared Tilapia ($19) is another signature dish that has been around since day one.
As with the scallops, perfect timing and heat in the sauté pan produced fish that was seared, juicy and flaky. Besides, tiliapia is one of the recommended fish choices for sustainable eating by seafoodwatch.org, so you can enjoy with no guilt. The accompanying scallion risotto and spinach complemented the lightness of the fish. Brancaccio uses the delicate Carnaroli rice for her risottos. It is a starchy, short grain rice, but offers a lighter texture than the more familiar Arborio.
The Italian Meatloaf ($19) is a mix of ground beef, pork and veal, and was a hungry-man version of a meatball served with a heap of some mighty fine mashed potatoes.
Be sure to save room for dessert. They are large enough to share, but coming in at approximately $7, you can splurge on your own portion. Vanni makes most of the selections - except for Aunt Lena's cheesecake, which is made by Cousin Maria. (Yes, we are in South Philly.)
The tried and true Tiramisu fit the classic Italian bill, and the Kahlua Creme Brulee was a twist on the French classic. Ordinarily, I don't like someone messing with my creme brulee, but this worked.
I wasn't as fond of the Banana Bread Pudding, but my other tasters were sold on this sweet concoction.
Hit of the desserts was the Flourless Chocolate Cake, which had a dense cake surrounding a molten ooze of rich chocolate. What's not to like?
I enjoyed the atmosphere of August, which plays out the philosophy. The Venetian blinds feel like '50s Italian American, but the wall sconces and color scheme add a modern twist. In contrast to the many overly themed restaurants in the city, August's decor fades into the background so that the food is a focal point.
My guests and I particularly appreciated that, unlike many BYOBs, the noise level was such that you actually could hold a conversation. Without even leaning into each other. Imagine that.
It seems that you need to be a regular to get your waitstaff to smile, but service was efficient and there were some nice old school touches, such as taking your coats on entry and retrieving them, as well as keeping the doggie bags in the kitchen until the check is paid. *