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Zeppoli: Zep' In Your Step

by James Verde
618 Collings Avenue
(856) 854-2670
5 forks

Even at mere months old, Zeppoli has a reputation that precedes it. The heraldic trail of palm fronds that stretches from South Philly to this tiny, noisy Sicilian BYOB in Collingswood is all for its chef and owner Joey Baldino. Before making his solo debut with Zeppoli in August, 33-year-old Baldino was chef de cuisine at Center City’s acclaimed Vetri ristorante. But despite all the pedigree and the hype about Baldino moving into the old IndeBlue space, it wasn’t until the Sicilian antipasto arrived that I realized exactly how special Zeppoli is.

Visually, it was a drop-dead stunner on a sleek oval platter. Think grilled, raw and marinated vegetables, salumi and cheeses, room-temperature bean salads and more, grouped and arrayed in overlapping color-blocked bands. Viewed from another table in the 36-seat dining room, the antipasto looked like some giant exotic fish upholstered in a jewel-toned rainbow of scales.

Then there’s the taste. Honest. Straightforward. Pure. Vibrant. From garden-sweet grilled zucchini and twangy agrodolce (sweet-and-sour) carrots to oiled Jersey tomatoes with teeny mozzarella bocconcini and lush cannellini bean-and-Sicilian tuna salad, everything tasted exactly like its base ingredient. No—better than its base ingredient, as if Baldino’s simple, time-honored treatments helped them achieve some higher level of consciousness.

With an immaculate open kitchen and wood walls decorated with black-and-white snapshots of Sicily, Zeppoli has an unfussy polish that matches the food. The antipasto, served with lots of house-baked bread, was only the beginning of the parade of vivid, delicious dishes that would follow. Sausage. Panzanella. Prawns. Bring it on, Baldino.

Those sauteed prawns arrived over lemony white beans spiked with chilies, still wearing their heads like pointy pink helmets. For the squeamish, the heads slip right off, and I’m sure if you ask nicely, they’ll even decapitate the crustaceans in the kitchen.

I loved the tagliatelle even more, a tangle of gold, al dente ribbons in a straightforward lemon sauce that positively sparkled on the tongue. It’s available topped with prosciutto or bottarga, though it would be a crime not to opt for the latter (even with a $2 supplement). The bottarga is cured tuna roe, a specialty of the Mediterranean island and beloved for its briny bite. Sharp, citrusy and salty, the tagliatelle was the perfect foil for Baldino’s superrich spinach-ricotta gnocchi. The ping pong ball-sized dumplings were light as feathers, but there’s quite a bit of brown butter action happening on the plate, maybe just a little too much. The tagliatelle works like a palate-cleansing intermezzo between bites.

All pastas are available in half or whole portions; the smaller portion is perfect as a prelude to entrees like coniglio pizzaiola, rib, loin or leg of rabbit on the bone stewed till tender in vivid crimson tomato sauce. The velvety leaves of fresh oregano are sharp in my memory, such a small detail that lent major, critical flavor to this plate of tender rabbit and crusty rosemary roasted potatoes. It was stunning, as was a simple roasted half-chicken, perhaps the best piece of poultry I’ve had anywhere. Baldino burnished the skin to a crisp, buttery bronze, stretched taut over a moist, perfectly cooked breast and leg. The meat harmonized with garlic and lemon and rosemary, sublime with sweet-and-sour cippolini onions.

For dessert, indulge in any of the dazzling sorbetto (pineapple, prickly pear) or ultra-creamy gelato (pistachio, Torrone) flavors, and don’t miss the signature this BYOB is named for. Baldino’s zeppoli are light as marshmallows, dusted in cinnamon-sugar and served with Nutella. If there’s one thing sweeter, it’s the price-point. Zeppoli’s menu tops out at $29 for a marinated ribeye, with the rest of the items well below that mark. Use the savings to tip more generously than usual; the sharp staff deserves it.

With food and hospitality that excels at these heights, Zeppoli’s reputation will only grow. Zeppoli isn’t one of the best restaurants in Jersey; it’s one of the best in Jersey and Philly. Make your reservations now. I’m right behind you.

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 8 (November, 2011).
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