If you rarely dine outside Delaware, you tend to forget the charms of bring-your-own-bottle restaurants the opportunity to match a hard-to-find wine with top-notch cooking, the economy of enjoying an expensive bottle without paying the typical 100 percent markup, the freedom to pour anything you can buy, unlimited by the selection in a restaurant’s cellar.
Though in most regards Delaware has more enlightened alcohol policies than its neighbor to the north, BYO restaurants are an exception. While Delaware lawmakers have tightened rules, extinguishing a type of restaurant that was rare in the state to begin with, Pennsylvania’s quotas on liquor licenses have given rise to an entire movement, with websites devoted to the best restaurants in Philadelphia and its suburbs that serve no alcohol but invite customers to bring their own.
For all the pluses, though, there’s a downside to BYO restaurants, something I forgot until a Saturday night dinner at Bistro Sovana reminded me: If you didn’t bring it, you can’t drink it. You have to make do with mineral water. You can go through a lot of it on a busy Saturday night.
Truth is, an extra bottle is crucial at peak hours, but it’s a good idea any time you visit this smart-looking brick oven kitchen and pizzeria. The favorite is nearly invisible from the road. It’s tucked inside the Willowdale Towne Centre, a new-age strip mall disguised as an office complex.
Sovana is as much trattoria as bistro, and the mixture of French and Italian extends to everything from the glossy, minimalist dÂ¨Â¦cor to the earthy yet sophisticated menu. One companion looked at the menu, which outfits peasant-style classics in the sophisticated garb of perfect ingredients, refined but still a little rough-edged, artfully displayed but never fussy. He took in the decor, which that night ran to bounteous flower arrangements, gourds and other fruits of the field, and wondered, “Is this place supposed to be French or Italian?” After three visits, I still can’t give a definitive answer.
And true to the bistro concept, it works whether you’re there for an early-evening pizza with the kids, a midweek dinner with friends or a special-occasion splurge. Everything from the humblest pizza to a $25 entree is prepared with an attention to quality and detail, in both ingredients and preparation, that’s rare in the region. The bread, the pizza, even the fresh mozzarella is homemade. What isn’t homemade is the best the owners can find, from the pasta to the produce to the artisanal cheeses. This is cooking that truly deserves the best wine you have, whether it’s an $8 Chilean CarmenereÂ¡Âªhey, it worked for meÂ¡Âªor a fine Bordeaux.
Nicholas Farrell’s restaurant was a Kennett-Unionville neighborhood mainstay for several years, but it reached the pinnacle of local restaurants early this year, when the kitchen added Bryan Sikora, formerly co-owner and chef of Django, a BYO hot spot in Philadelphia. Nowadays customers on a schedule arrive by 6 p.m., because Sovana doesn’t take reservations. It doesn’t need to. It’s always busy.
So do yourself a favor and bring a bottle of something-champagne, white wine, an aperitif-to enjoy while you wait for one of the 30-odd tables to open up. You never know-it could be five minutes, but it’s more likely to be 45.
You can wile away some time browsing the retail shelves inside the glass front door, contemplating ingredients that turn up on the menu, like brass-cut Italian pasta that shows up dressed in a stunning Bolognese-style wild boar sauce.
If you’re not a shopper, you can watch the bustle in the open kitchen. The pizza station is right up front, and the dressings are amazingly varied, from a simple cheese, basil and tomato pie (on the menu it goes by its Italian name, pizza Margharita) to a wild combination of figs, Gorgonzola, bacon, arugula and syrupy aged balsamic vinegar. If you’re more of a traditionalist, try the artisanal pepperoni with fresh local mushrooms. When you’re waiting for a table, aromas from a parade of take-out pizzas fill the foyer, making the lack of pre-dinner drinks keenly felt, especially because these brick-oven masterpieces measure up well with those at Pizza by Elizabeths in Greenville. The selection is nowhere near so impressive, but the quality is.
As tasty as the pizzas are, it’s worthwhile to hold out for the bistro menu. The food, at once traditional but contemporary, is a perfect reflection of the dining room’s mix of sleek surfaces and earthy accents. The menu, like the pizza list, makes up in quality what it lacks in quantity. Everything we sampled on three visits was good. Some of it was spectacular.
Among the starters, the standouts included a dish of light house-made mozzarella served with avocado, pesto and tiny tomatoes, and a goat cheese tart served with roasted baby beets.
The showstopper was frisee salad, a bistro staple that tasted as good as most versions I’ve had in France. The dish is one of those French classics for which the ingredients have long been standardized-pale, frizzy leaves of lightly bitter greens served with bits of broiled pork belly and topped with a poached egg. The Sovana creation used apple-smoked bacon and crisp bits of potato not exactly the long strips of lardon you’d get in France, but a close approximation. But when the warm egg yolk was punctured and mingled with the sherry vinaigrette dressing, it tasted like springtime in Paris.
None of these dishes come off as precious. Even when a dish begs for fussy presentation for instance, the other dazzling appetizer, a timbale of raw tuna and avocado with fresh lime cilantro vinaigrette that goes under the label tuna carpaccio the kitchen adds only an elegant green curl of cress. There’s none of that “Oh, it’s too pretty to eat” regret as you tear into a flavor grenade that embeds soft, rich raw tuna in even softer, richer avocado. It’s not big, but it’s rich enough to serve as a light entree.
Most of the menu, though, is downright down homeÂ¡Âªif your home is in, say, Umbria. That’s the last place I tasted a pasta dish as deeply satisfying as wild boar ragout. Boar has a deeper, darker flavor than any pork you’ve ever tasted, but it’s still not as deep a note as beef-baritone rather than basso. Sovana’s boar was finely ground, then slow cooked into a tomato sauce the equivalent of Bolognese, which is made with beef. Unlike beef, though, boar lightens as it cooks, yielding a softer flavor and fuller body. The sauce was married to aged goat cheese, grated like Parmesan, and liberally applied to thick, chewy radiatore pasta. Two bites of this and you’ll be seriously considering the 500-gram bag for sale in the lobby.
The other pasta dishes on the fall menu-light, fluffy gnocchi made with ricotta cheese and enormous ravioli filled with short rib meat and served in a cream sauce with onions-were equally well made, even if they didn’t remind me of Umbria.
The story was much the same with entrees. Most were very good, as sharply conceived and executed as anything in Wilmington, but a few were fantastic. Topping my list was the meat from a lamb shank, a dish most Italian chefs would serve on the bone, osso bucco style. Sovana’s comes instead with strands of slow-cooked meat mounded atop a scoop of cooked baby spinach, all perched on a just-barely-browned gratin of cauliflower and goat cheese. Every bite was paradise, especially so because the wine I brought for that visit was a deep, fruity ancient-vine Zinfandel.
The other knockout dish I have a hard time believing that I’m saying this was the roasted organic chicken. Normally I avoid ordering chicken at restaurants, because it’s usually the chef’s concession to timid eaters. This chicken, though, showed the yawning gap between birds raised for the supermarket and those treated like gourmet fare. Baking in Sovana’s brick oven turned the seasoned skin into a thin, crisp coating over incredibly moist, tasty meat. It was served with roasted baby root vegetables turnips and carrots in addition to the beets and a potato gratin.
Seafood fans can choose among scallops served with a spicy squash sauce with a side of creamy wild mushroom risotto, Scottish salmon baked on a cedar plank and served with a mustard sauce, and two different daily fish specials. (Usually one is filleted, the other served whole.) Just like a good Italian trattoria, Sovana serves several vegetables as side dishes, including roasted Brussels sprouts with bacon and broccoli rabe with garlic and cannellini beans. Potatoes mashed, gratin and fried into the best pommes frites this side of the Atlantic are also offered a la carte.
Desserts, as you might expect, are homemade, from ice creams and sorbets to various chocolate creations. My favorites were the baked fruit desserts that use whatever is best at the market.
If there’s a weak spot to Bistro Sovana, it’s the inability to keep up with the weekend crush. Service was very good on our midweek visits, but on a busy Saturday night the pace slowed to a crawl, and our waiter disappeared for a long stretch when we needed a wine bottle opened.
Come to think of it, that’s another thing to keep in mind if you plan to visit on a weekend: It wouldn’t hurt to bring along a corkscrew.
Willowdale Towne Centre 696 Unionville Road
Kennett Square, Pa. (610) 444-5600
Prices: Pizza $10-$11; appetizers $9-$12; salads $8-$11; entrees $22-$28 (roasted whole fish)
Recommendations: House made mozzarella Bocconcini; tuna tartare; frisee salad; wild boar ragout; crispy Lancaster organic chicken; braised lamb shank.