While Stephen Starr racks up more and more posh, high-concept eateries, La Viola’s formula of a friendly, attentive wait-staff, intimate atmosphere and some of the best Italian food north of South Street seems to be working just fine. This Italian BYOB on 16th Street between Locust and Spruce streets offers traditional fare as well as enticing specials, which change nightly.
Upon entering La Viola on a rainy Thursday, a boy of about 14 years old greeted my dining companion and I and offered to take our jackets and umbrellas. I was glad to be in out of the rain and since we were half an hour early for our reservation, I thought for sure that we would be sent back out into the cold and wet. But, to my surprise, the hostess found a table in the back and we were seated as a waiter uncorked and poured the bottle of wine we had brought.
Those who visit La Viola may find that they are dining much closer to their fellow patrons than they are used to. The dining room is no larger than an average living room and somehow manages to seat 35-40 people at a time. With such tight quarters, conversations often involve two or more tables. In other reviews I have read of this restaurant, many people see this is a negative, but I found it to make dining a lot more fun. One of the co-owners, Domenic, is also one of La Viola’s waiters.
Domenic is a Philadelphia Italian, and I had the pleasure of having him wait on me. He doesn’t have to wait tables, but he does because he enjoys it. Even when he announces the evening’s specials, his love for his restaurant comes across. Each dish from the black bean soup to the stuffed pork loin is described with an air of “Wait ’til you see what we’ve got tonight!”
After relaying the specials Domenic came back, this time to the other side of the table and again said “Let me tell you our specials for tonight.” I kindly said that we had already heard the specials. Domenic then said with a grin stretching across his face. “I know!” he said. “I’m just joking around! See, it’s a fun place too!”
The rest of the staff, as Domenic told me, is Albanian from a region close to Italy where a lot of Italian is spoken. All of the staff are pleasant and accommodating and help to make dining at La Viola a memorable experience.
As soon as we sat down a basket of hot, Italian bread was brought out along with it a plate of olive oil and balsamic vinegar for dipping. Appetizers are typical Italian like the antipasta mista; prosciutto, salami, provolone and roasted red peppers draped over a bed of lettuce with just the right amount of olive oil and fresh black pepper.
The fettucine al salmone combines al dente pasta with tender Salmon pieces in a creamy pink cognac sauce and is a steal at only $11. The maco shark is flaky and seasoned to perfection and comes with carrots and green beans and brought my dining companion close to tears.
Dessert offerings include sorbet, tartuffo (ice cream inside of a chocolate shell) and the best tiramisu on this side of the Atlantic. All told, dinner including two appetizers, two entrees, coffee and dessert totaled $55. A rather disappointing 2002 bottle of Santa Cristina brought the total of a three-course dinner for two including wine to only $65.
La Viola has succeeded in capturing the spirit of the South Philadelphia BYOB and bringing it to Center City. Because of its reasonable prices and attractive setting, La Viola attracts a variety of clientele from students to young professionals to 50-plusers. La Viola is perfect for a romantic dinner or for just a night out with friends. As seating is limited and fills up fast, reservations are recommended.
Service is speedy so you can certainly run in for a quick bite. But if you want to linger there won’t be anyone trying to force you out.
La Viola is cash only. It is on 253 S. 16th St. Call (215) 735-8630 to make reservations.
Brendan I. Keegan can be reached at email@example.com.