REVIEW BY LEN LEAR
For Digital First Media
A co-worker of mine, Maureen Gallo (no relation to the Gallo wine family), is a foodie who revels in telling me about her latest restaurant “finds.” Her new favorite, which she has frequented seven times in recent weeks, is Pescatore (“fisherman” in Italian), a five-and-a-half year-old Italian BYOB at 134 Bala Ave. in Bala Cynwyd.
Prior to Pescatore, the space was occupied for two years by Avril, a fine BYOB that was owned by a former food editor of the Philadelphia Daily News, April Lisante, and her husband, Christian Gatti. Directly across the street was the Bala Movie Theater, built in 1926 and converted into a triplex in 1995. Many movie customers, including ourselves, would see a movie at the Bala and then walk right across the street for dinner. When the Bala Theater closed in December, 2014, many people predicted doom for Pescatore since so many customers had come from the movie theater.
“When the movie theater closed, we lost about 15 percent of our business,” said Thomas Anastasi, 39, owner/chef of Pescatore. “Many of the other small businesses on Bala Avenue had to go out of business, though. We have a lot of regulars, and that has kept us going. There has been talk lately about the movie theater reopening, and that would really help us all.”
Born and raised in South Philadelphia, where he still lives, Anastasi is a fifth-generation member of his family’s Italian Market seafood business, Anastasi Seafood, Inc., Thomas graduated from the Restaurant School of Philadelphia in 1999 with a specialization in fresh seafood. “We definitely have fresh seafood every day we are open,” said Thomas, “because my father brings it to me every morning from his fish market. He gets it right off the boat.”
Anastasi, who previously owned Thomas, an eponymous restaurant in Moorestown, NJ, for four years, began cooking meatballs and “gravy” (red sauce) with his grandmother when he was just 6 or 7 years old. When he was a teenager, “My cousin opened a restaurant called Joseph’s on Passyunk Avenue, and I started working there one day washing dishes. I fell in love with restaurants. I loved the action. I was hooked.”
(Thomas was also quite an athlete. When I told a co-worker of mine, Ray DeJohn, recently about our visit to Pescatore, Ray said, “I know Thomas. We played on the football team together at St. John Neumann High School in South Philly. He was also an outstanding baseball player.”)
Of course, the heroes on Pescatore’s menu and list of daily specials are seafood dishes, but Anastasi also makes his own ravioli, gnocchi, fettuccine, pappardelle and tortellini as well as all desserts. The small tablecloth BYOB, which seats about 45, has food of real epicurean ambition. His signature dish is the flatbread Caesar salad, a pedestal of vividly greened Romaine lettuce, jumbo shrimp, crabmeat and a warm Caesar dressing with shaved parmesan cheese. It is $25.95, but it is the biggest salad we have ever seen and could feed three people. It is called an appetizer, but it is not.
A more “normal”-sized appetizer is the tender coins of grilled Portuguese octopus with cannellini beans, capers, Kalamata olives and smoked paprika aioli ($16). This is pristine luxe seafood with focused precision and flavors.
Tuna tartare was fresh ahi tuna with avocado, roasted peppers and fried shallots married to a resoundingly vibrant soy reduction. The pairing was ethereally light and well balanced with judicious seasoning ($16). A scallop entree consisted of four Barnegat Light scallops with wild mushroom risotto that glistened with a butter shine and a subtle port wine reduction ($28). This is food that is not fussy or overcomplicated. In fact, Thomas’ advice for home cooks is to “keep it simple. Use simple ingredients. Don’t get too creative.”
The food at Pescatore may not send you into raptures, but it is a triumph of workmanship with
pitch-perfect flavors and polished confidence in the execution. Our server, Ebone, was very personable and knowledgeable. There is street parking as well as a free lot behind the restaurant.
For more information, call 610-660-9400 or visit www.pescatorebyob.com