Another Italian-style BYOB is up and running in South Philly, this one with an old Roman name.
August, at 13th and Wharton, is owned by Maria Banni and chef MaryAnn Brancaccio. Although they opened the 32-seat restaurant in October, they named it August because it's the month they met and decided to open the business. "Besides, we liked the name," said Banni in a phone interview.
August is housed in a former corner grocery that most recently was a Thai restaurant. The building retains the charming original tin ceiling. Tables are covered with rich black cotton cloths. The soft lighting enhances the bright open kitchen where Brancaccio and her sous-chef work.
I was happy to see a menu with only 16 dishes rather than the usual War and Peace-length offerings. Our server brought us a fresh loaf of neighbor Faragalli's always-delicious bread along with a dish of softened butter. She opened our wine and left us to discuss the menu.
My husband and I took note that nearly every table was taken, filled with happy patrons. All of them brought wine, and a number obviously were repeat customers. This is particularly good for the restaurant business on a weeknight, which it was.
Edward began dinner with pan-seared sea scallops ($9) and I wanted to try the marinated artichoke hearts ($8). My husband received a luncheon-sized plate containing three small, fresh scallops that were nicely seasoned and perfectly seared. In the center of the plate was a mound of fresh, spicy watercress in a light ginger vinaigrette. The contrast of sweet and spicy was delicious.
For my antipasto, about three canned artichoke hearts were cut in half, retaining the briny flavor because they should have been better rinsed. Sun-dried tomatoes and chickpeas were added to the dish. Everything was sauté ed in olive oil and served hot. The menu doesn't state whether the dish is hot or cold but does include leeks among the sautéed ingredients, though my plate had none. This is a dish best served cold.
The baby spinach salad ($8), however, was very tasty. Edward and I decided to share it. Bless the California farmers who are growing baby spinach and sending it east. Many local restaurants are nixing the weary mesclun and substituting healthy spinach. Enhancing our salad were toasted pine nuts, chunks of sweet apples, hickory-smoked bacon and small triangles of mild provolone. The salad was perfectly dressed in a sherry vinaigrette. Sherry is a marvelous substitute for vinegar, lemon or lime juice and packs a pure flavor.
Edward's mind traveled to the south of France for his entrée of roast chicken with herbes de Provence ($14) while I remained in the good ol' USA for pan-seared pork chops ($16).
Herbes de Provence is a marvelously tasty blend of dry herbs that French chefs and good home cooks buy in decorated clay crocks. We are fortunate we can buy them here, as well. The blend can vary but it's usually a mix of basil, fennel seed, marjoram, rosemary, sage, summer savory and thyme. Sometimes lavender is added. Brancaccio rubbed the herbes de Provence over half a chicken and then roasted the bird. The result was juicy inside with a crisp skin.
Regular readers know my husband detests zucchini. Since each dish at August is customized, zucchini came with the chicken. Edward politely asked our server if he could have another vegetable. "Of course you can," she said with a smile. "We have broccoli rabe if you like it." We adore broccoli rabe, and this time-honored Italian verdura was not at all bitter and beautifully sautéed with a bit of olive oil and garlic. Hot roasted potatoes also came with dinner.
Center-cut pork chops are usually from the loin or rib and are at least 1-inch thick. The menu states that center-cut chops are used in this entrée, but I received two very thin, nearly boneless pieces that unfortunately were overcooked. My dinner came with broccoli rabe and creamy whipped sweet potatoes laced with maple syrup that were so outrageously delicious, I scraped my plate clean.
From the desserts, we selected a slice of creamy yet dense cheesecake ($6), which was dusted with cinnamon. It was a delicious finale to our dinner. Banni told me her cousin makes the cakes for the restaurant.
Although our meal was uneven, I predict Banni and Brancaccio will continue to enjoy their newfound success. The glitches can easily be worked out. And I commend Brancaccio for her dedication to fresh vegetables. Each entrée comes with sides she deems will enhance the dish. Fresh asparagus, broccoli rabe, green beans, sautéed spinach, crisp roasted potatoes and the creamy sweets with maple syrup are on the menu.
Service generally was professional and attentive. There were a few slow points, but the place was filled and even Banni helped clear the tables. Another server would be a bonus.
On the telephone, Banni told me she's pleased that people have discovered August. "They bring wine, and some people bring their own glasses," she said, "even martini glasses with vodka and gin."
Two tips of the toque to August.