Grilled Mediterranean grouper is served with a tomato-zuccini purÃ©e and sautÃ©ed baby eggplant.
Photographs by Thom Thompson www.thomthompson.com
There are many things I miss about the ’90s. The Italian restaurant boom is not among them.
By the middle of the decade, more than half the new restaurants in Wilmington and its environs, even the national chains, seemed to be Italian. Restaurateurs looking for a familiar menu that didn’t require much training to cook competently flooded the area. I’m sure it was great for tomato canners and veal producers, but it sure put a crimp into restaurant hopping.
I’m not sure when the trend began to abate, but it clearly has. Once-popular Italian eateries have closed, replaced by Indian restaurants.
If there’s one place Italian restaurants still hold sway, it’s Wilmington’s Little Italy. Like similar neighborhoods in larger cities, Wilmington’s ethnic enclave is shrinking at the edges, and many of its stalwarts have disappeared. It retains its cornerstone spaghetti-and-meatballs icons, Attilio’s and Mrs. Robino’s, and its pizza parlor, Pala’s. Still, its onetime high-end Italian restaurants are long gone. Only a couple of more ambitious Italian restaurants, Mona Lisa and Luigi Vitrone’s Pastabilities, remain.
Maybe the neighborhood is ready for a Mediterranean rebound. That might explain why Ristorante Pomodoro opened last summer, the first time in years a new Italian restaurant has replaced one of the interlopers (in this case, the succession of Mexican eateries that inhabited the northwest corner of Eighth and Union streets).
Massimo Parmisciano pours wine for Imma Cristiano at the bar
The trattoria atmosphere is out of the ordinary for Little Italy. Pomodoro is more casual than a white-tablecloth dining room, but classier than the neighborhood’s checked-tablecloth family spots. The 60-seat dining room retains the bar along the front wall that marked Pomodoro’s Mexican predecessors, but the color scheme is now a sophisticated mix of salmon, dark gray, mustard and black, with stretches of fake brick and stone. What distinguishes it from the typical striving-for-hip bistro is the warm atmosphere fostered by the Parmasciano brothers, who own and run the restaurant.
Pomodoro might sound like a run-of-the-mill name for an Italian restaurant (it means tomato) but it doesn’t serve run-of-the-mill Italian cuisine. The focus is on the food and wine of the country’s southernmost regions, particularly Calabria, the area that forms the toe of the peninsula’s boot, and Campagnia, the area that surrounds Naples. Familiar ingredients—pasta, olive oil, garlic and tomato—form the backbone of the cuisine.
That’s driven home with the first visit of the waiter or waitress, who brings a mixed basket of breads, from white to herbed focaccia, along with a trio of dipping sauces—red, green and umber daubs flavored with sweet pepper, spinach and eggplant.
But the menu is fleshed out with ingredients and dishes seldom represented in local Italian eateries. A good example is polpette, the Italian word for meatballs. In Italy, meatballs aren’t made from ground beef, and they’re not served with spaghetti. Pomodoro’s are formed of finely ground veal, chicken and mortadella (a cured meat that resembles bologna), then fried. The end product is densely textured, subtly seasoned and more complex than what you’ll find at any red-gravy restaurant. And three of them, each the size of a racquetball, are the star attraction on the plate.
From left: Sous chef Marino Cristiano, waiter Piero Galieti, chef Francesco Parmisciano, waiter Massimo Parmisciano and sous chef Marco Parmisciano
The kitchen seems to have a thing for cured meats from the old country, especially in salads. You can order a plate of mixed greens, walnuts and orange segments topped with thin slices of braseola, a thin-cut, air-dried beef. Even more unusual is a salad made with slices of speck, an air-cured ham (a Northern specialty, but tasty nonetheless). It’s drier and chewier than prosciutto, and it works well as a wrap for ricotta cheese. Served with greens and fruit, it’s another starter you won’t often find outside its home region.
Sometimes the southern cooking style comes out not in the ingredients themselves so much as in the way they’re employed. For example, pasta with a sardine sauce is the sort of peasant cooking that’s common in Italy but rarely encountered in America. Some might find the combination of strong-tasting little critters with very little tomato sauce a bit too fishy, but for me, the kitchen’s decision to tame the oiliness with a shot of tomato purÃ©e allowed the pasta’s flavor to merge with the other two, a light but sturdy triad in perfect balance.
Pork is the most common meat in the south. Pomodoro’s kitchen does it justice with a garlic- and rosemary-infused red wine reduction and careful sautÃ©ing. The cuts are tender slabs of juicy meat. In fact, every dish I tasted over two visits was hot and fresh when it reached the table.
For me, the most impressive dish on the menu was a plate of gnocchi dressed with a Bolognese sauce made with, of all things, duck. The little rhomboids of potato dough with a pinky-tip dimple in the middle, light and firm at first, yielded to the slightest pressure. This is as good as any gnocchi you’ll find, especially when it’s dressed with a slurry of ground duck and tomato sauce. Because the duck is a bit sharper than beef or veal, it’s a nice match for the deep but creamy fruit.
The best matches for this assertive cooking are the wines of the southern regions, and Pomodoro proves it with more than a dozen wines from the exotic areas where hot sun bakes red grapes for weeks on end and the rocky soil imparts intense levels of fruit and flavor. You can experiment freely—several are available by the glass, most for under $7 a pour—and whoever’s on duty will steer you toward something appropriate. We took advantage of the latter option, choosing a Nero d’Avola, a dark, burly Sicialian red that is the perfect match for the sauce Bolognese.
Homemade tiramisu with lime cello, espresso cello and chocolate cello.
After three generous courses, dessert might prove a challenge. The dessert list typically offers a flavored cheesecake, a few flavors of gelato and the masterpiece of the dessert menu, a haunting tiramisu, the cake moistened just enough to soften it, hastening the mingling of many flavors. The gelato, by contrast, didn’t distinguish itself much from other local versions.
The only major problem we encountered was a distressing shortage of things that seem like they should have been standards. We ordered a Campari and soda, only to be told the bar was out of the apertif. How about a glass of Prosecco instead? Oops, all out of the bubbly, too.
As if that weren’t sketchy enough, the menu was full of unannounced absences and substitutions. Red wine risotto was made with rice that was too long grained to be Arborio, so it lacked the creamy-but-firm texture that distinguishes the dish. The grilled vegetables the menu promised with the meatballs were nowhere to be found. Such lapses gave our meal a slapdash air that was out of synch with the quality of the cooking.
Service didn’t exactly help. On our first visit, the Italian waiter was still learning English. On the second, our waitress was unfamiliar with the menu. Everyone was friendly to a fault, but at these prices—entrÃ©es average about $20, starters nearly $10—more than good intentions is required.
I suppose the signature dish, in terms of both promise and where it wasn’t met, was the seafood soup, or zuppetta de pesce. The stellar mix of seafood—scallops, clams, shrimp, mussels, fish and more—was fresh and flavorful. But where was the broth? Whether you consider it soup or stew, the broth is what elevates a mix of seafood to the sublime. As the various bivalves release their essences and the herbs and garlic apply their signatures, there should be some broth to soak up the flavors and deliver them to anyone who wants to sop them up with some bread. Pomodoro’s loaves are sturdy enough for the task, but one swipe and the bottom of our bowl was dry. It tasted great, yet we were left a bit disappointed.
Ultimately, that’s how I feel about Ristorante Pomodoro—so much promise, so close to greatness. If only it would realize that the grand vision isn’t enough, that the little things must be exceptional, too, and that the service has to be as sharp as the cooking. If and when they do, Little Italy will have a unique entry in the must-try derby.