All In The Famiglia
804 E. Warrington Ave.
Mon.-Sat., 4-10 p.m.
Appetizers $7-$14; entrees $18-$48; desserts $5-$10. BYOB, nonsmoking. Reservations recommended. The chef takes requests.
It was the kind of night you hope the baby won’t decide to make an early appearance. The roads were slippery, the skies weeping snow mixed with rain. But the windows were all steamed up the first night we stopped at Alla Famiglia. All of the tables in the front room were pushed together into two grand gatherings, each unintentionally bisected with bottle after bottle of wine. Judging strictly by the overflowing conviviality pouring forth, I am pretty sure I could have pulled up a chair and joined either party, but it was fun on the outskirts watching enormous plates of gorgeous food being carried off around the room, the chef at work and at play, clearly engaged in a profession providing both.
Allentown is a neighborhood with its fingers crossed, a working-class community that hides the passage of time. People play pool in the bars and canasta in the senior centers. Alla Famiglia’s blunt rectangular exterior reflects the community’s early character, while its luminous interior, high-ceilinged architecture, exposed brick and the patina from a 15-foot copper hood give off magnetic, Old World charm. I remember when Alla Famiglia was Hilltop Diner, a hybrid mom-and-pop spot for a cup of coffee and a sandwich, conjoined with a little convenience store for those in need of a last-minute carton of milk or loaf of bread. Trolley cars rumbled by filled with vacant faces and raw emotions conjuring images from Death of a Salesman, echoing the sounds and whispers of someone lonely amid urban madness.
Jonathan Vlasic is an acrobat in the little exhibition kitchen that was once the diner’s counter. He is known to wave a customer up and show him or her how to make something. He’ll build recipes at the table. "I’m a product of my family’s good cooking," says the chef from Ambridge. "I don’t take any shortcuts, and I don’t skimp. It’s all about fresh ingredients, pure ingredients." If there’s no veal parmesan on the menu and you’re craving it, he’ll make it. When Vlasic pounds the meat, the walls shake. You can hear the smack of a steak onto the grill, see flames fly. Sous chef Mark McManus’ presence in the cozy domain allows Vlasic time to rub up against as much of the world as possible. "I’m in the business to make a life," he says. "I think my food looks pretty, but it’s simple. Simplicity is elegance." If e.e. cummings were around, he’d liken the upbeat, mischievous chef with the shrewd albeit minimalist touch to a page of his clean, spare poetry. "The day of stuffy restaurants is over," predicts Vlasic.
Things go on, start anew, I thought, dangling my boot at the tail end of what is actually the restaurant’s kitchen. The axis of fine dining has shifted to something far more personal in the last decade. To my left, a metal baker’s rack is filled with coffee cups, giant bottles of San Giuliano virgin olive oil, a few hefty tomes such as The Italian Cooking Encyclopedia and The New Professional Chef. I’m intrigued by a chef who encourages us to stay when the house is packed to the gills at the end of a hectic night. Vlasic’s feet may be tired, but his spirit is still on high. "What kind of food do you like?" he inquired, passing us a menu. Chefs generally have a bit of the artist in them. Vlasic’s unmistakable sense of style is without an ounce of vanity. In fact, from the hand-painted pottery above the rear door to an ornate antique iron lantern in the front window, what he’s given back to this vulnerable little community is a visual sense of hope, something positive that can be seen by the kinetic teenagers hugging lampposts and lingering in shadowy storefronts.
While we sat on the sill and waited for a table to open, the chef fed us morsels of Alla Famiglia’s story. David Ayn, a local restaurateur famed for putting top-shelf Italian restaurants in forgotten places, such as Davio and (the now-closed) Palio in Beechview, approached him one day two years ago over a pot of coffee and said, "Buy my restaurant." At first, the thought was overwhelming. "No way," chuckled Vlasic, thinking, "I’m 27." But it didn’t take long for the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute graduate to cozy up to the idea. This was his longstanding dream. Following 90-hour workweeks, resorts and Christmas Eve gigs until 2:30 in the morning, "I’m living my dream," says Vlasic, "though I’m still paying off the fans."
Stunning mahogany cloverleaf paddles of woven bamboo look as if they could airlift a B-52. When our time came, we followed like obedient schoolchildren into the back room. Three tables. Warm greetings lessen the disappointment of losing a seat out front. "Seats for lovers, not voyeurs," whispered my husband, Brad. "A quiet room is just a place for a party waiting to happen." We poured from the waiting bottle of chilled Acqua Panna. A basket of artisanal breads arrived almost instantly, flanked with an ambitious trio of fresh goat cheese and olive spread, house "holy oil" (seasoned extra-virgin olive oil with banana peppers) and cecinini (garbanzo beans, imported cheeses and Moroccan olives). Crusty Italian bread is light and airy. Hollow spring-pasta with tomato-vodka sauce precedes entrees, purposefully chosen to help one get from starters to tiramisu. A drop-dead delicious salad is lovely with lots of olives, golden and dark raisins, pine nuts and house balsamic vinaigrette.
Specials are an extension of this menu. Jot down the diverse list on the paper that covers the starched linen to spare the charming waitstaff team – Errol and Marnie – from making too many recitations, though they’re the epitome of graciousness.
An appetizer featuring shrimp and calamari, tentacles included, is quick-fried in garlic oil with garden leaves, herbs and Sicilian olives. It could be ruined by too much garlic, but "I don’t overwhelm," explains Vlasic. "One of the biggest turn-offs in Italian cuisine is too much garlic." Errol rescues leftover sauce for our home enjoyment.
"I’m having a cow," laughs a gentleman at an adjoining table. "Would you like to taste it?" While his comrades passed around the fork, we ordered our own 12-ounce, center-cut filet mignon drenched in herb butter, smothered in mushrooms and grilled over hot coals. Vegetables are cut big and thick. Vlasic uses cheese as a condiment to compliment the food, so when your veal pizzaiolo arrives, a 24-ounce natural-cut veal chop braised with hot and sweet peppers, Italian sausage (grandfather Dominic Buzese’s recipe), onions and mushrooms, fired with sweet, creamy Danish fontina and contrasting sharp provolone – you’ll know why the cheese isn’t melted.
Another veal option I’d return for is cotelette del monzu, an "unfrenched" sirloin of veal cutlet pounded to three-quarters of an inch, crumb-coated and pan-fried in sweet oil with colossal lump crab and toasted pignoli nuts. It’s a rustic look. So simple and oh so good. Vlasic loves seafood: "It spikes my curiosity."
I imagine the seafood purveyors love his matching seasonal catches with whims. "It’s all about balance of flavors," notes Vlasic. He’s like Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the French epicure and gastronome who claimed that the discovery of a new dish did more for the happiness of a man (or woman) than the discovery of a new star. I chose a very Sicilian tonno al salmoriglio, a mix of Genova yellow-fin tuna, lots of onions, anchovies, green and Moroccan olives, oregano and a little basil (the one time you can do this combination successfully), a splash of fresh lemon. That first night, I ate the best burnt-almond torte tiramisu – the ladyfingers were soaked in chambord instead of espresso – I have ever had. Brad finished with a bosc pear stuffed with ricotta, mascarpone, gorgonzola, toasted walnuts, orange peel, sugar and honey.
As we stole back out into the cold, Errol appeared out of nowhere and took my arm, chatting pleasantly as he walked me to our car. That evening I felt as though I had stepped from an Edward Hopper painting into a new neighborhood, into a different ZIP code than the one in which I had arrived.
Each month, Deborah McDonald jump-starts appetites with lively restaurant reviews that scrutinize who’s cooking what and where. She works anonymously, visiting each restaurant at least twice before writing her column.
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