One of the reasons I enjoy this time of the year so much is that there are so many occasions to celebrate, and, hence plenty of excuses to indulge in delicious food. For me, the prime eating season is a two month affair. It kicks off with my birthday in November and winds down on New Year’s Day. By that time, pretty much can’t stand the sight of food and vow to drink only water and eat only yogurt for the entire month of January (a commitment that never seems to last more than two days).
Chester’s birthday falls right in the middle of all of the festivities, so we celebrated with a day out. Since we are officially old, we caught an afternoon showing of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (So good. They have done an amazing job adapting the books for the big screen so far. I can’t remember the last time that two and a half hours flew by so quickly!). After that, we headed to dinner at Paradiso.
In front of the Christmas tree on East Passyunk Avenue
Paradiso opened back in 2008, helping to kick of East Passyunk Avenue’s development into a prime dining destination. In a neighborhood that had long been home to restaurants offering the “red gravy” variety of Italian food, Paradiso changed things up quite a bit with it more eclectic dishes. If you have picky eaters in your group, they might be put off by mentions of tripe, chicken livers and wild boar.
Chester opted to start with one of the evening’s specials, escargot. The snails were perfectly prepared, out of their shells, and served in a rich tomato sauce. The sauce was excellent—a little thinner than a traditional marinara, but thicker than a broth–making it the perfect consistency to sop up with bread or the accompanying parmesan crostini. Meanwhile, I chose the octopus salad, with beans and potatoes. I liked that the salad was served warm, with a creamy arugula puree instead of traditional greens. But, it had too much salt and pepper (This may just be a matter of personal preference, however. Since we don’t use a lot of these ingredients when we cook at home, I seem to be hypersensitive to them when we go out).
Our server explained that all of the pastas are homemade and could be ordered as entrees or appetizers. So, we opted to share another one of the evening’s specials, squid ink bucatini, as a pasta course. It was a bit disappointing. Some strands were al dente, while others were almost totally uncooked. And, like the salad, was a just a bit too peppery for my taste. The shrimp that accompanied the dish fared much better. They were fresh and cooked just right—a bit chewy, without being tough—and well-seasoned.
I can rarely pass up risotto when I see it on a menu, so it didn’t take me long to decide on that for an entree. By this point, it was evident that the preparation of the seafood items on the menu is one of Paradiso’s strongest suits. The two large scallops that topped the dish were perfectly caramelized and tender. The risotto itself was creamy and included a generous helping of wild mushrooms and parmesan cheese. It was pretty much perfect. Of course, I also sampled a bit of the pork chop that Chester ordered and it was simply seasoned and tender.
If I hadn’t been so stuffed from the hearty risotto, I would have ordered the pumpkin cheesecake for dessert, as it looked delicious. I was content to finish the meal with a strong cappuccino and biscotti.
Although the staff could not have been nicer, service was a bit bumpy at times. We had three different people ask us what kind of water we wanted when we were first seated and our server gave me the wrong wine. The pacing of the courses was a bit uneven as well. Appetizers arrived rather quickly and the main courses taking forever to come out of the kitchen, which resulted in Chester’s entree being slightly cold by the time it got to us.
I attribute these stumbles (and, perhaps, the previously mentioned lack of attention given to cooking the pasta and seasoning certain dishes) to the fact that the restaurant was hosting two large parties that evening—one in the private room on the second floor, and another, unfortunately, in main dining area.
Now, I can deal with crowded restaurants. In fact, I pretty much expect this to be the case in South Philly (especially on a Saturday night), since most places are very small. But, a group of 20 people who are loud, obnoxious and generally acting like they are the only people in a place, really puts a damper on things for everyone else. Chester and I had trouble hearing each other across the table (and now I sound really old) and I heard several other patrons complain to the server about the noise level as well. I understand that the restaurant wants to maximize its bottom line, but a group of that size really needs its own space.
On the whole, though, we enjoyed the food and think that some of the shortcomings are probably not as evident on nights when the restaurant isn’t catering to large groups. Our waitress noted that Sunday nights are generally more low key, and as a bonus, the restaurant is BYOB on that day.