Since opening in mid-August, Zeppoli has made headlines, including a recent two-bell review from acclaimed Philadelphia Inquirer food critic Craig LaBan.
LaBan, it’s worth noting, wrote that the restaurant was a noise-problem away from earning a third bell. Impressive.
Zeppoli is chef Joey Baldino’s new Italian restaurant occupying chef/owner Rakesh Ramola’s old IndeBlue spot on Collings Avenue.
Writing Zeppoli off as yet another Italian restaurant in the already pasta-heavy Collingswood dining scene, I hadn’t made eating there a priority, assuming I’d make it there sooner or later. That was mostly ignorance on my part. Had I seen Baldino's eye-popping resume sooner—it includes tours with acclaimed Philadelphia chefs Jose Garces, Michael Solomonov, Marc Vetri and Georges Perrier—I might have gotten over my arrogance and stopped in sooner. Or does it make me more pompous for waiting until I’d seen the heavy hitters Chef Baldino was rolling with? Either way, I was missing out on one of the best new restaurants in the area.
Zeppoli takes pretentious off the table the moment you walk through the door. The décor—wooden tables and panels beneath a dimly lit ceiling—is comforting. Black-and-white photographs line the walls. It feels like home. The servers—three of them, roaming the dining room and exchanging customer duties like bartenders on a busy Saturday night—were above-and-beyond courteous, eager to offer recommendations and answer questions about a menu that may prove complicated to the unfamiliar. Zeppoli, we were informed, separates itself from other area-Italian with its strong focus on Sicilian flavors.
The menu is broken up into a salad course, a pasta course, and an entrée course. Pasta courses come in half portions that serve as additional appetizer options, allowing diners some flexibility.
My consensus, in a nutshell, is simple: wow. I don’t often have a meal that I’m still thinking about the next day, but I kept going back to the flavors from the night before. Perfectly al dente rigatoni with a delicate tomato sauce dotted with roasted eggplant that burst with flavor. Large balls of spinach ricotta gnocchi in a brown butter sauce that was unlike any gnocchi I’ve had before. The creamy flavor of the ricotta comes forth before shifting to the tangy bitterness of the spinach, in a striking two-step process. It was intriguing.
Also delicious: Sicilian Fisherman Stew, a concoction of saffron couscous, cod, sword fish, mussels, cockles, calamari and a giant head-on prawn swimming in a tasty crab broth that was executed perfectly in every aspect. The calamari was tender in a way I wasn’t aware calamari could be, and the whole dish was brimming with complex flavors and depth. It was very Mediterranean, yet also about the furthest thing from my mind when I think of Italian cooking.
This is soulful, straightforward cooking. This is the kind of food you hear described in cliché-trodden judgments on Iron Chef America. A meal polished off with delicate, airy zeppoli pastries that give the restaurant its namesake, paired with creamy Nutella for dipping, couldn’t have come to a better conclusion.
Until, that is, the chef decided that zeppolis came out of the fryer too small, and sent over another batch unannounced as an apology that wasn’t needed or requested. That’s the kind of service you won’t receive at most places, the kind that makes a return visit not just likely, but necessary.
(Have tips about the restaurant scene in the Collingswood and Haddonfield areas? Send them to Patch food columnist David Valiante at firstname.lastname@example.org.)