A Classic Italian BYOB on South Street, in Philadelphia’s Graduate Hospital Area
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is a city overflowing with Italian BYOB restaurants, including South Street’s Roberto Cafe. Located in the old Graduate Hospital area (increasingly referred to as “Southwest Center City”) Roberto Cafe has been serving quality, classic Italian fare to area residents for several years. It is one of my favorites when in the mood for unassuming, casual Italian dining where the warm service makes regulars feel like part of the family. Roberto Cafe offers dependable, classic dishes in a cozy setting at reasonable prices. I’ve eaten there enough to sample my way through a large portion of their menu, and have very rarely been disappointed. If you’re visiting Philadelphia and want to enjoy a local favorite a bit off the typical tourist track, then Roberto Cafe might be the place for you.
Roberto Cafe is owned and operated by brothers Roberto and Fernando Vincenti, who hail from the Puglia region of Italy. Their southern Italian heritage is evident in the food on their menu, which has an emphasis on seafood while also offering some classic Italian meat and poultry dishes. Roberto and Fernando honed their skills at Old City’s Radicchio before opening their own establishment. At Roberto Cafe, the diner steps inside to find a small room that seats 30, with brick walls decorated by Roberto’s own artwork. The feeling is very much that of an Italian trattoria, with wooden floors and an open kitchen. In good weather, one can dine alfresco on the patio deck in the back – there isn’t much of a view or decor, but there is a little more room than the inside, which can get cramped when busy.
Roberto Cafe’s menu is fairly short, but typically expanded by a range of daily specials depending on the season and what fresh seafood or meats are available. Bring your own wine, and it will be opened promptly, and an ice bucket offered for chilled whites or sparkling wine. Diners can choose from a range of antipasto such as Insalata Scoglio (Squid, scallops, shrimp, mussels and clams in lemon and olive oil, $9.00) or Mozzarella Affumicata (Grilled smoked mozzarella topped with sauteed radicchio and shitake mushrooms, $9.00). Several different salads as well as bruschetta are available, ranging from $6.00-8.00. Some specials occasionally available include grilled sepia, stuffed calamari, and arugula salad with warm goat cheese. Pastas and risotto dishes are entree-sized and include such house specialties as Fusilli al Granghio (Fusilli with jumbo lump crab meat in a light pink cream sauce, $16.50) and a classic Penne Amatriciana ($14.00). For a heartier meal, there are traditional meat dishes such as Veal or Chicken Saltimbocca ($16.00), and Grilled Langoustine ($25.00). Typically a whole fish of the day is available, grilled and filetted tableside to serve either one or two. Other frequent dinner specials include Lobster Ravioli and Filet Mignon.
After ordering at Roberto Cafe, a warm basket of bread is brought to the table along with a small dish of tomato bruschetta. On a recent visit, my companion and I began with two specials of the night: beef carpaccio, and cabbage stuffed with risotto in a sage and white wine sauce. The carpaccio featured lovely, tissue-thin slices of filet topped with a perfectly fresh arugula salad. The cabbage roll was hearty but not heavy, seasoned well and cooked until the cabbage was fork-tender. We also ordered Bruschetta Puglia, featuring cannelini beans, arugula, onions, oil and garlic ($6.00). This was tasty and a hearty serving of four thick pieces of toasty, crusty bread with toppings.
The Vitello Milanese ($20.00) is typically my entree of choice at Roberto Cafe. Served with arugula and fresh chopped tomatoes, the veal chop is expertly prepared, lightly breaded and always perfectly cooked. On this night I let my companion order it, as he rarely gets more than a small taste from me. Instead I chose a rack of lamb special, served in a red wine reduction with grilled zucchini and potatoes. The lamb was cooked exactly to my medium-rare request, and quite tender. The reduction sauce was a little heavy for my tastes, but did not overwhelm the wonderful flavor of the meat.
We finished the evening with two espressos and one wonderful cannoli. Our bill for the night with two starters, the bruschetta, two entrees, a shared dessert and espresso was just under $130. This was a bit more than we usually spend at Roberto Cafe, as so many of the dishes we ordered were specials and high-priced cuts of meat. It is typically easy to enjoy a 3-course dinner for two for about $100, sticking more to the regular menu items including pastas and salads. Roberto Cafe also offers fixed-price menu options and serves a simpler menu for weekday lunches.
In conclusion, Roberto Cafe is an excellent choice when seeking out Italian dining in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Simple preparation of quality ingredients expresses much of the ideals of Italian cooking, and is what one will find at this charming BYOB.