Walking down the 2200 block of Walnut Street on a recent, raw March evening, I couldn’t help but get the feeling that I was in no man’s land. I imagine that when Kathryn and David Faenza chose this spot for Salento, their second venture, they were hoping to trade not only on the success of their original South Philly bastion, L’Angolo, but also on the block’s association with nearby, ritzy Rittenhouse Square. It’s not that the block felt at all unsafe, just that it seemed stuck in an awkward limbo between the upscale residential and shopping district of Rittenhouse, the hustle and bustle of Center City office buildings a few blocks due east and the more laid back residential neighborhoods to the northwest and southwest.
Upon entrance, Salento feels open and inviting. Appointments are pleasant, with white paper overlaying white linens atop spacious, square-legged tables. Artsy-craftsy chandeliers lend some warmth while a large, gilded mirror serves as centerpiece on the rear wall. Not long after being seated though, that vaguely unwelcoming sense of limbo returns, as if following one in from the street. The combination of neutral tile flooring, whitewashed, raw-stone walls decorated with pastel blue acoustic panels, and a drop ceiling make the room look like a partially finished basement. With my back to the door and the street-front window, the space indeed felt somewhat subterranean. Affable, attentive service, however, helped to warm up the room’s stark feel.
The restaurant takes its name from chef Faenza’s family origins in Salento, a sub-region of Puglia situated in the heel of the Italian peninsula. Salentine specialties are marked with asterisks throughout Faenza’s menu, which is divided into three sections: insalate e antipasti, pasta and secondi. As the choice of terminology suggests – pasta rather than primi – the pasta courses are sized and priced, according to American habits, as full courses. The pasta selections can all be ordered in half-portions, which is exactly where I decided to start.
Linguini ai frutti di mare… Mussels, clams, calamari and shrimp, white or light red
With a little vino bianco in mind, I opted for the white version of the mixed seafood pasta. Snappy, al dente pasta was lightly sauced in white wine broth and tossed with a shellfish mélange. I found it a bit odd that the clams were served in the shell while the mussels were not; I’d have preferred shells for both as a surer sign of freshness. A bit more olive-oil richness and depth of flavor could have easily brought the dish up a level. Those are arguably minor quibbles though, as the dish was light, clean and easy – not a bad starter.
Gnocchi… Pan crisped ricotta gnocchi, wild mushrooms, olive oil, garlic
This was my wife’s choice as main course but I couldn’t resist stealing a few forkfuls. Very firmly textured gnocchi held up easily to the kitchen’s pan-frying regimen, which brought out a light caramelization of flavor that married well with the woodsy mix of sautéed funghi. She yearned for red sauce; I liked them just the way they were.
Maiale… Pork tenderloin, pancetta, white wine and thyme; rosemary, ham and mozzarella potato cake; Brussels sprouts
In contrast to Philly’s ubiquitous Italian red-sauce joints, it was a pleasure to read Salento’s menu and find secondi other than veal, veal, veal and chicken, chicken, chicken. Regrettably, the Maiale as served didn’t quite meet up with my hopeful expectations. The pork was overcooked to the point of dryness. The potato cake might have made for a more interesting pedestal if the potatoes were shredded rather than mashed. Though tasty, its texture was gummy, bordering on leaden. Luckily, decadently salty pancetta and perfectly cooked Brussels sprouts came to the rescue, saving the dish from failure. Actually, the presentation and conceptualization of the dish were right on. It would only take a little more attention to detail and a few subtle tweaks to bring it right up to the plane of deliciousness.
Amaretto bread pudding, whipped cream, caramel sauce
Aside from the gelato brought in from Dol Cicé, the desserts at Salento are made in-house by pastry chef and co-owner Kathryn Faenza. We shared only one dish, her amaretto bread pudding. Deliciousness was not a problem. I’m a sucker for good bread pudding and this was a solid rendition. The amaretto element was a tad too bold for me, but that’s splitting hairs. Satisfying flavor, fresh texture and richness were all delivered without falling into the doughy, soggy mess or dried-out mass that all too many puddings become.
Among the sea of Italian BYOBs throughout Philadelphia, most that are successful have established themselves primarily as reliable neighborhood nooks. If set in a locale similar to, say, L’Angolo, Salento could easily fit right into that groove and even stand out with the help of its diverse menu. Given its odd spot on Walnut Street, however, Salento seems to have set itself up as a destination restaurant. The question is begged, therefore, as to whether the food is at a level that will bring people in from further afield and, more importantly, keep people coming. After close to a year in business, the Faenza’s new place seems to be clipping right along. The promise is certainly there. A little extra effort in the kitchen should be all it takes to secure Salento’s spot as a worthy destination.
Related post: Wines at Salento.
2216 Walnut St
Philadelphia, PA 19103