A recent week-long bout of the flu left my taste buds in turmoil. Hot tea with lemon or ginger ale tasted like a combination of metal and library paste. When I finally had enough of chicken soup or toast with jam, I developed a craving for pizza.
I thought I had sampled every pizzeria in the city, but I somehow missed Rustica located in Northern Liberties. I was raring to go even though a monsoon-like rain was raging and the temperature had dropped.
Rustica is more of a delivery/take-out shop, but there are a few tables for those who prefer hot-from-the-oven pizza. A college basketball game was on the television to keep waiting patrons company.
The menu is a mix of appetizers, salads, sandwiches, calzones, wings, paninis and, of course, pizza. Just step up to the counter and give the men, who are busy at work, your order.
I had good feelings about Rustica the minute I looked over the menu as they use only imported Italian meats and cheeses from Claudio’s in the Italian Market. I have been a Claudio’s customer for years and instantly knew the ingredients did not come from a can or jar.
The side dishes at Rustica also serve as appetizers. Arancini ($5.95) were four golf-ball size treats prepared with Arborio rice stuffed with fresh mozzarella and prosciutto. They were coated with fine, dry breadcrumbs and deep fried to a golden brown. The rice had a perfect consistency. It was still creamy inside like it would be if it were used to make risotto. The rice had a deep yellow color, which leads me to suspect some saffron may have been used. A cool fresh tasting marinara came on the side.
The antipasto salad ($9.95) was large enough for two. It consisted of bite-size bits of fresh cool romaine, thin slices of red onion, pitted calamata olives, sliced red ripe Roma tomatoes topped with Genoa salami, prosciutto and shards of sharp provolone. I tip my toque to anyone who foregoes the nasty tasteless winter tomatoes and opts for the sweeter Roma style. I enjoyed the contrast of textures and flavors. The olives imparted a salty flavor that married well with the slightly hot red onion and crisp romaine lettuce. The meats and cheese really brought the salad together. It was a party in my mouth. There is a choice of dressing, but extra-virgin olive oil and a squeeze of lemon or lime hit the mark.
The list of pizzas is dazzling. There are a few funky ones for those with a culinary sense of adventure. I am not sure coleslaw should go on a pizza. There are red, white and specialty pies on offer in two sizes. I usually like a white pie topped with spinach, garlic and olive oil. But I wanted to taste the red sauce prepared at Rustica. The flavor and freshness is a sign that the chefs know exactly what they are doing.
We ordered Old Smokey ($21 small, $24.50 large). It’s a red pie made with pancetta, smoked mozzarella and oregano. The pizza arrived piping hot, so I had to wait a bit before digging in. The crust was prepared to perfection. It is thin, crisp on the bottom with the right amount of slight thickness around the rim. We have all suffered through cardboard crust pizza topped with sweet, runny sauce. The tomato sauce had a fine consistency that was enhanced by a sprinkling of oregano. But the generous large ovals of smoked mozzarella and crisp, salty pancetta were the stars. I toted several slices home for lunch the following day.
Rustica is a busy place. The delivery men were constantly coming and going, but those of us enjoying pizza in the restaurant were served promptly, resulting in an evening of delicious, hot, fresh pizza.
Three tips of the toque to Rustica.
903 N. Second St.
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