Changes in weather often affect my appetite. It was quite warm last Saturday when suddenly, overnight, the temperature dropped and I immediately wanted warm, comforting food.
While watching the Eagles game on Sunday, I tweeted “I am craving meatballs and gravy.” Chef Kevin Sbraga, whose restaurant is one of my favorites in the city, tweeted a photo of a pot simmering on his stove at his home: “No meatballs but gravy with sweet sausage, lamb neck and pepperoni.”
Since it was too late for me to buy the beef, pork and veal necessary to make them at home, I wracked my brain to discover the next best thing.
Villa Di Roma immediately came to mind. I have not been there in many years. It was one of the first restaurants I reviewed when I became the restaurant critic for the paper. I clearly recall a cold December evening two weeks before Christmas when I first experienced the warm family atmosphere that is a hallmark of Villa Di Roma. Snow was falling on the Christmas trees that were for sale in the Italian Market.
Edward and I made it to the restaurant just in time to watch the Eagles big win. The place was packed, and it seemed half the populations of Washington Township, N.J., and South Philly were tucking into plates of pasta, or enjoying a beer or glass of wine at the bar while waiting for their table.
Villa Di Roma has been a Ninth-Street staple for almost 50 years. There are two well-lit dining rooms separated by the bar with a photo of Rocky running through the Italian Market. Suffice to say, everyone was in a dandy mood.
What I like about the cash-only establishment is the no frills, simple and hearty Italian-American fare. No fuss, no muss.
There are moderately priced wines by the glass and bottle. Edward and I decided on a Montepulciano ($7 a glass, $28 by the bottle), which we have enjoyed on numerous occasions at home.
Edward and I nibbled on a loaf of fresh Italian bread with a good crust as we discussed the menu. From the antipasti, we ordered shrimp scampi ($9.95) and mussels in red sauce ($10.95).
Six medium-size shrimp arrived in a round, metal dish nestled in a sauce of melted butter and lemon juice. Although perfectly cooked, they imparted a bit of a tinny flavor. I would have liked more garlic in the sauce, but we enjoyed it nevertheless as we dipped bread into it.
The mussels were clean and totally free of sand and grit. I found the red sauce a bit thin and oily, but the flavor was OK. I would have preferred more garlic and some chopped parsley here, but every chef has his or her recipe for this classic. Most of the mussels were plump and not a bit overcooked.
My meatball craving was satisfied when I dove into ravioli with meatballs ($16.95). The gravy was gosh darn delicious. It was rich and satisfying and obviously simmered at Villa Di Roma. The pockets were filled with ricotta and flecks of chopped parsley. I doubt they were homemade, but I know the meatballs were. I received two of these well-seasoned beauties, a little smaller than a baseball. They imparted an almost pâté-like texture inside that I particularly liked. Half my dinner was packed to go for lunch the next day.
Edward’s sausage cacciatore ($15.95) was a simple straight forward homestyle dish which he relished. One can order it served on pasta, but he prefers it right on the plate. Sweet Italian sausages were sautéed with peppers and onions, napped in the aforementioned homemade gravy. He ate every bit of his dinner.
Service was friendly and attentive. Several of the waitresses doted on a little girl who, with her parents, are regulars.
Villa Di Roma serves the classics that Italian-Americans have savored for Sunday dinner for many years. The meatballs and gravy were the stars here and certainly satisfied my cravings on a chilly autumn evening.
Two-and-a-half tips of the toque to Villa Di Roma.
932 S. Ninth St.
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