Purists, beware. A dozen years or so into the trend of new Italian-American cuisine, it seems more than ever that anything goes, as long as at least one ingredient in any given dish is loosely associated with traditional Italian fare. Burrata and guanciale may have lost the shine of novelty, but we still crave it. And though a decade of any trend threatens to turn it into cliche, modern Italian isn’t there yet. There is still plenty of territory to mine, plenty of fun to be had, room for one more restaurant.
A couple other excellent places in Wilmington and Kennett, each distinct from the others, have been working established claims for years now. Enter Hearth Kitchen in Kennett Square. One of the most anticipated openings of the summer, Hearth has staked out a place between the others, geographically and philosophically. It brings a bit of what everyone else does, with just enough of its own game to set it apart.
Which means my dining partner and I are happily surprised to see a starter of crispy fried zucchini flowers, because they are something you just don’t see on a menu, and because it doesn’t get much more Italian than that. Combining the big blossoms with a dice of zucchini and bits of lobster in a sauce of sweet peppers pushes it into the “new” zone.
It’s the kind of dish we’ve come to expect from the husband-wife team of chef Bryan Sikora and Andrea Loconti, owners of the charming La Fia, the playfully Mex-eccentric Cocino Lola and the newer Merchant Bar in Wilmington. Having found the city to be a perfect home for their brand of creativity and devotion to craft, Sikora and Loconti are pushing into the Brandywine Valley. It is comfortable territory for Sikora, who was once a partner in the wildly popular Talula’s Table in downtown Kennett. The couple also benefits from the success of Wilmington-area restaurant pioneers in Chester County, who saw an open market for competitively priced, chef-driven food and drink.
The dining room and bar are intimately connected at Hearth Kitchen.//Photo by Javy Diaz
Hearth covers the bases, so it should appeal to a range of palates. The menu includes interesting entrées of veal, lamb, beef, chicken, pork, seafood and risotto. The selection of small plates is heavy on tantalizing seafood combinations. There are 10 pizza combos—with a selection of 10 add-ons—baked in the requisite wood-fired oven. And there are more than half a dozen housemade pasta dishes.
To our starter of zucchini flowers we added the grilled octopus with polenta—the traditionally Italian heart of the dish. The landscape changes with a salsa verde of cilantro and Peppadew, but it works exceedingly well. The combination of chilis and cilantro gave the salsa a slight horseradish-like kick. The small, crispy cubes of fried polenta were an ideal vehicle for the sauce. Bonus points for the light char on the perfectly tender octopus. Rarely have I had it cooked so well.
More Italy: The aroma of mild sausage in the hearty white bean soup transported me instantly upon presentation to Tuscany. Leaves of broccoli rabe and a bit of acid from tomato countered the richness and balanced the texture.
Our server, who we recognized from a previous gig at one of Wilmington’s best restaurants, encouraged us to try a pizza of prosciutto and peaches with pistachio, scamorza and honey. As delicious as that sounded, I’m over the pizza thing, and I don’t know anyone that is so entranced by the workings of a pizza chef that the oven needs to be the focal point of any room. (That’s just me.)
Hearth may have embraced the pizza and pasta trends, and the contemporary decor—dark woods, pincushion upholstery, drop ceiling tiles that resemble stamped tin—seems de rigueur for places of its kind. But Hearth goes its own way, too. Would one expect gazpacho in a modern Italian restaurant? Probably not, but why not offer it anyway? There is no selection of cured meats or artisanal cheeses, which at other place can sometimes seem like a needless show of who sources most deeply, a game of foodie oneupmanship. Nor is there an endless list of boutique wines and craft beers. Hearth keeps it short, but again covers the main varietals and styles, and with fine representatives of each. (We recommend the light Albariño blend from locally owned White Horse Winery. The owner may be a partner in Hearth, but the wine nonetheless deserves its spot on the list.)
Hearth Kitchen’s beet salad (left) and roasted branzino served with a purée of white beans, sautéed peppers and roasted fennel.//Photos by Javy Diaz
Beet salads are nothing new, yet we still want them. Hearth obliges with a plate of cubed roasted beets, lightly dressed, with dabs of unadorned mascarpone. The dish is sprinkled with whole pistachios and coarse sea salt, then topped with ruby-veined baby beet greens. Groundbreaking? No. Simple and delicious? Absolutely.
The entrées are more adventurous, and choosing one was hard. From the pasta selections, we chose a mafalde with duck ragu, kale and parmagiana. The frilled edges of the pasta mirrored the lacy edge of a kale leaf, each ruffle cradling a bit of duck. Here, a minor misstep: Though the duck fat enriched the Alfredo-like sauce, the meat was ground so fine, it seemed an after thought. The lightly sautéed kale added some texture, and the dish as a whole was delicious.
Ditto the roasted branzino. The lightest touch of a fork caused the sweet white flesh to fall away from the skin. A light purée of white beans married nicely with the sautéed peppers atop the fish. But it was the roasted fennel, sweet and toothsome, that made the dish stand out. A cinnamon-spicy blueberry buckle was a nice finish to the meal.
So in a landscape of modern Italian places that often try to distinguish themselves in the same ways, why trek over the state line? Hearth’s brand of rustic yet sophisticated prep seems an especially good fit for the area, it is comfortable and fairly priced, and, I’d suggest, it’s always a treat to see what Sikora is up to.
The Shoppes of Longwood
839 E. Baltimore Pike, Kennett Square
484-732-8320 • www.hearthkennettsquare.com
Prices: Starters and salads, $8–$15; entrées, $15–$30
Recommended: Grilled octopus starter, roasted branzino
Note: Hearth offers a children’s menu that is a real value.