(Philadelphia, PA) With thunderstorms brewing overhead, our friends MB and SB pick us up at the hotel for our third and final Italian dinner at nearby Ralph’s Restaurant. Lightning flashes in the distance while rain spatters the windshield. Could this weather be the harbinger of our first disastrous meal in Philadelphia? The wipers beat like funeral drums...
Luckily, and unexpectedly, Ralph’s has valet parking available for the evening. We pull up and race to the entrance, just as the rain seems to be getting heavier. A small outdoor “foyer” guards the front door, New York style, which leads into a small, cozy dining room thronged with seated diners. Old-time photographs line the walls, proving that celebrities ranging from Teddy Roosevelt to Frank Sinatra have visited (and evidently loved) Ralph’s. Faded patterned wallpaper looks like it belongs in your grandparents’ Victorian mansion. Ornate ceiling tiles gleam overhead. The place oozes traditional, old-school vibes, and I fully expect to see men in pinstripe suits with one hand tucked in the breast pocket at all times.
MB chats with the host, who seats us promptly at a four-top near the entrance. The occasional blast of cold nighttime air hits us when other patrons enter (it is a virtual downpour now) but it gets warmer as the night wears on. Our server is friendly, gruff, and full of good humor. He takes our drink order (Yuengling for me), then rattles off the specials for the evening with lightning-round precision. Everyone opts to start with some kind of appetizer, but I’m still reeling from our stint at Mac’s. I need a reprieve from meat (if only momentary). The “spring salad” sounds good, so I go with that: spicy arugula; sliced rings of red onion (which I shuffle off to the side); quartered, juicy Roma tomatoes; chunks of tangy gorgonzola; tart balsamic dressing. All that freshness does wonders, clearing my taste buds for more traditional Italian fare.
I’m ready for pasta now, and I’m a sucker for good gnocchi. This place looks like there may be a little old lady somewhere in back—grandma, let’s say—hand crafting each seashell-like piece. Seems like a safe bet. I’m back on the carnivore train again, so I get the tomato meat sauce. The bowl arrives nearly overflowing with bright red sauce covering the pale gnocchi. There are green bits of herb in there, but not overwhelming. I try a nibble. Good, but not great. The gnocchi wavers from being slightly undercooked to perfectly cooked (it may have finished cooking under the sauce, so that’s forgivable). It’s a solid, if plain, dish with no real diversion from textbook Italian cuisine. A standby, if you will. It is satisfying, though. I do my best to eat most of it before setting aside my fork. The house chianti washes it down nicely. Again, no bells and whistles with the wine either.
While the rest of the table decides to end with coffee and cannoli, I’m good with just some espresso to fill in the cracks. (That’s a good thing; no one else seems that impressed with the cannoli.) In the end, a one-time visit to Ralph’s seems sufficient to get the gist. Solid food with little flair, adhering to time-honored recipes. The rain has stopped finally, and we’re able to depart without getting soaked. Time to sleep...but not with the fishes.
We're lucky to have more than a few friends in the Philly area and even luckier to get the opportunity to meet with all of them during this visit. Tonight MB and SB have offered to take us to South Philly's legendary Ralph's Italian Restaurant. Started in 1900 and owned and operated by four generations of the same family, Ralph's has rich history and we are eager to partake. As soon as we walk in the door, the unmistakable aroma of garlic and "Sunday Gravy"—the meaty rich red sauce Italian grandmothers make every Sunday—permeates the air. I'm instantly transported into my Italian-American step-grandmother's (can you follow all that?) kitchen and my mouth begins to water.
Our good-natured waiter ribs our host a little bit as we're seated. We get a carafe of the house chianti and settle in. I start with the artichoke heart salad, which is dressed in a red wine vinaigrette and a dusting of black pepper. The artichoke hearts are canned, which is exactly what I expected for $6.50, and they are quite lovely with the tang of the red wine vinegar and a little punch from the pepper. I like that Ralph's hasn't gone all chi-chi with "roasted organic locally-harvested artichoke hearts," but rather proudly serves up a salad of them right from the can. (Exactly as I suspect nanna would have done back in the day.)
The menu is packed with yummy Old World favorites and I'm having trouble making a decision. You can't pick a traditional Italian pasta dish I don't love: fettuccine, spaghetti, gnocchi, ravioli. Yes, please! Then there's some of the lesser known, but equally traditional dishes with sweetbreads and chicken livers. I debate ordering one of those, which would be so completely out of character for me, when I suddenly notice 18 veal dishes on my menu and a new debate begins. After much agonizing, I go with veal parmigiana and feel validated when our host orders the same and our hostess orders chicken parm. I know I won't be disappointed.
And I'm not. A colossal veal cutlet (cutlet doesn't seem like the right word for this meaty beast), smothered in red sauce and topped with melty mozzarella, is delivered along with a side of broccoli. The veal is tender and sweet on the inside with a crispy coating. The red sauce is delectable and has clearly been made low-and-slow back in the kitchen all day. The mozzeralla is gilt on the lily at this point. I pretty much ignore the broccoli with its garlicy bread crumb topping and wolf down most of the veal. I might have made noises like a barnyard animal when I ate, it was that good.
Our hosts order a cannoli and we all take a bite. The ricotta filling is dotted with chocolate chips and it's quite yummy, but I'm stuffed and have to stop. Though I'd like the chance to work my way through the other 17 veal offerings. Another visit or two perhaps?