Chef at Alla Famiglia puts a special touch, ingredients into Italian restaurant's sumptuous meals
June 24, 2010 4:00 AM
Chef/owner Jonathan Vlasic keeps the menu evolving at his Alla Famiglia restaurant in Allentown.
By China Millman Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Alla Famiglia, a refined, expensive Italian restaurant, is something of an oddity on gritty East Warrington Avenue in Allentown. Only the rare visitor stumbles across the restaurant. For most, it is a planned destination.
The ambience is defined by the open kitchen, a gleaming copper hood running almost the length of the restaurant. Near the entrance, bowls of prepped ingredients -- brightly colored vegetables in various states of dress -- are a gorgeous display and an ingenious space-saving measure. Decor is a touch rococo, a Venetian mask here, a black and white photo there. Wing-like fans reminiscent of a Jules Verne story hover overhead.
Hours: Monday to Friday, 5-10 p.m.; Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.
Basics: Lavish meals embrace the Italian worship of ingredients along with the Italian-American love of abundance in a picturesque, comfortable dining room; fine dining service with a casual edge.
Recommended dishes: 12-ounce meatball, Smoked Allegheny Mountain provolone, wahoo with almonds and dates, soft shell crabs, veal chop Milanese, Tonno al Salmoriglio linguine, burnt almond tiramisu, black Russian cake.
Prices: Appetizers, $12-15; pasta entrees (served with salad), $25 to $34; entrees (served with salad and pasta course) $32-62; desserts, $8-10.
Drinks: Beer lists includes a range of options, but a limited one. Scotch, Grappa, port and cordials for after-dining sipping. Full bar with a short list of house specialities. The all-Italian wine list is the joint project of chef Jonathan Vlasic and manager Steve Alexander; it is organized by taste profile. One sparkling, five whites and seven reds by the glass, starting at $7. Three sparkling wines by the bottles, starting at $44; eight whites by the bottle, five for $40 or less; 30 reds by the bottle, 13 for $50 or less.
Summary: Not wheelchair accessible; credit cards accepted; reservations strongly encouraged; corkage, $10 per bottle.
Noise level: medium loud to excruciating.
White linen-covered tables are set with bowls of seasoned olive oil, a goat cheese and olive spread and a chickpea salad with diced provolone, accompaniments to a heaping basket of pumpernickel and Italian bread warmed up as each group arrives. These abundant accoutrements were the first signal that we had embarked upon an experience that would be more feast than meal.
While it seems like a restaurant with a history (maybe even a past), chef and owner Jonathan Vlasic bought the business only five years ago. Over time, he has settled in a rhythm, partly familiar, but also constantly evolving.
A number of the appetizers are house specialties, but repetition has not dimmed their luster. The attentive, personable servers will describe them, but if you can't quite handle the game of memory, ask to follow along on the menu, where most of them are printed.
A 12-ounce meatball ($13) stuffed with mozzarella and draped in a gooey sheet of the cheese is a floating island in a pool of fire-engine red plum tomato sauce. Bigger than a baseball, this hunk of meat divides neatly into four slices, and one of those slices is just about right for an appetizer portion. Trifolata ($12), a dish of sauteed mushrooms, golden raisins and currents in a marsala cream sauce, was earthy and mild with a burst of sweetness.
The food is lavish and rustic, but don't be fooled into thinking that the kitchen isn't attentive to details. Cozze diavola, Prince Edward Island mussels simmered in a spicy tomato sauce, are tightly, artfully packed in a large, shallow bowl, so not a single empty or broken shell got into the mix ($14).
It's easy to get overwhelmed by the number of options, so it's worth taking servers' recommendations into account. Ours spoke most reverently about a smoked Allegheny Mountain provolone ($10), lightly breaded and fried and served in a tomato sauce with black winter truffles, wilted arugula and shavings of Locatelli Romano cheese. The earthy, smoky flavors were the perfect complement to a 2007 Col d'Orcia Rosso di Montalcino ($44), juicy cherry flavors balanced by a hint of spice and a bright acidity that cut through the richness of the cheese.
Mr. Vlasic experiments more freely with entrees, and diners should pay careful attention to the chalkboard list of specials that changes daily. Seafood dishes were particularly exciting, like Hawaiian Wahoo in a decadent creamy sauce of soft dates and crunchy toasted almonds, the sweetness balanced by lightly sauteed spinach with a hint of garlic ($48). Sage and lemon butter were a marvelously successful combination of flavors for perfectly crispy soft shell crabs ($50).
Subtlety is not Mr. Vlasic's mode of choice. The restaurant's famous veal chop, il vitello trita Milanese, is cut double thick, lightly pounded, coated in bread crumbs then fried in butter. As if that weren't enough, the crisp-coated package is then topped with lump crab, toasted pine nuts, lemon butter and Locatelli Romano cheese ($62).
While the price will certainly make many flinch, this is a very impressive chop, juicy and tender enough to cut with a fork; the richness of the meat, cheese and butter nicely cut by the brightness of the lemon and the crunch of the light crumb coating.
Bistecca Fiorentina, a slightly simpler preparation, is also impressive. The bone-in rib-eye is dry aged for 21 days, crusted in sea salt then grilled over hot coals and topped with sauteed red peppers, and more of the Locatelli Romano ($54). There was an unfortunate line of gristle through this particular steak, but given its tremendous size, it was probably all for the best.
The restaurant has the Italian-American love for oversized portions and lavish use of rich ingredients, especially jumbo lump crab meat. But there is also an obsession with quality of ingredient. Mr. Vlasic will serve only line-caught wild fish, sourcing from a wide variety of vendors based on finding the best quality product, not the best deal. In late summer, Mr. Vlasic and his mother, Eleanor, can enough tomatoes (and a few other vegetables) to usually last through February. A few weeks ago he bought a farm in Eighty Four, and by next summer, he hopes to be growing many vegetables for the restaurant and canning enough each harvest to last until the following summer.
The menu emphasizes a more Italian style of meal, as all of the entrees are served with a pasta and a salad served family style. The salad is a pleasantly bracing mix of lettuces sweet and bitter, with red cabbage for crunch, sweet candied walnuts, roasted red peppers and a light red wine vinaigrette. Don't forget the very good Gorgonzola cheese, passed alongside the salad. The pasta is De Cecco fusilli in a slightly sweet tomato sauce, simple and tasty.
There are other ways to enjoy the restaurant, which may reduce the total at the end of the evening. If you favor carbohydrates, there's an interesting assortment of pastas. I loved the tonno al salmoriglio, a dish of linguine (which could have been cooked about a minute less) dressed in an intensely flavorful combination of oil-poached tuna, chunks of green olive, anchovies, spinach and toasted pine nuts ($28). Or, share an entree. For a $15 surcharge, both diners can enjoy the pasta and salad course.
Dessert, which are prepared by Mr. Vlasic and his mother, were a bit more uneven than the savory courses. The cheesecake was tasty, but ordinary, and a lemon cannoli filling was grainy with a medicinal aftertaste. Stick to the burnt almond tiramisu with its raspberry, vodka and chambord filling, a refreshingly different take on the classic ($10). Or, if it's available, try the black Russian cake flavored with cocoa, vodka and Kahlua and served with a side of real whipped cream ($8).
Servers move through the dining room with a seasoned grace, reciting menu options with verve, answering questions and suggesting wine pairings, but also crumbing tables, refolding napkins and changing silverware and plates with every course. The elements are formal, but the tone is relatively casual and team service often results in more than one server asking about dessert or coffee orders.
Some may find the atmosphere too boisterous, especially at splurge prices for almost anyone. It is loud and some parties make it louder, occasionally overwhelming the melancholy lament of Sinatra, a staple of the restaurant soundtrack.
But even when we had to shout to make ourselves heard, it was hard to get frustrated. After all, every good party gets a little too loud, and at Alla Famiglia, a meal feels like a party that has been going on for years and, it's hoped, will never end.