Under the unofficial bylaws of Philly gentrification, easy access to homemade pasta at an affordable Italian BYOB is an essential box that must be checked — along with a gastropub beer garden and the prospect of single-origin caffeination at a WiFi-wired coffee shop — before any emerging neighborhood can seriously be considered to have arrived.
The possibility that sea urchin might be shirred into the creamy carbonara is an added bonus. Unless one of your guests reminds you she's allergic to fish just as we crack open the menu at L'anima, where almost every item (though not every one) is laced with white anchovies, a pungent splash of fish sauce descended from ancient Roman garum, tinted black with squid ink, or floated with some other seafood flourish. In which case, the usual extra points for a distinctive mission — L'anima's seafood passion — can backfire in a neighborhood still lacking the basics. And Graduate Hospital counts.
The construction frenzy of high-end townhouses transforming the blocks between South Street and Washington Avenue west of Broad has been eye-popping over the last few years. But those new residents have likely become used to summoning an Uber or GrubHub emissary any time they crave something ambitious for dinner. Dining options in that zone are undeniably sparse, save for the all-purpose utility of Chick's and the margarita-nacho stylings of Los Camaradas. There are some solid hits on the neighborhood's northern border (Pumpkin, Rex 1516, Magpie). But as busy restaurant corridors go, South Street West is no Frankford Avenue or East Passyunk.
The new L'anima is a lovely step in the right direction. It's set in a contemporary new building at 17th and Carpenter, where Roman-born co-owner Gianluca Demontis can be seen in his chef's coat hand-rolling the chewy spaghettoni for his cacio e pepe in the open kitchen. The spacious L-shaped dining room offers an airy sense of casual style without feeling stuffy, and the whimsical puffball lights dangling over the teal banquettes and marble-top tables distinguish L'anima as the first Philly restaurant (maybe the first anywhere) to embrace the spiny sea urchin as its mascot.
The downside: All the hard surfaces — the glass and mirrored walls, iridescent resin floors, and the mosaic of wood strips salvaged from old fishing boats that panel the columns — add up to a deafening echo chamber that on a busy weekend can make sitting inside unpleasant, to the point where conversation is a challenge. It's one of my biggest complaints about L'anima, but one that can be fixed with some smart sound-proofing.
There's already a pleasant alternative: a more peaceful seat on the gracious al fresco patio strung with lights that allows L'anima a welcome public embrace of its neighbors, gazing out from its corner across the intersection where a new park is in the works.
And, more important, Demontis and Rosemarie Tran, his partner and wife, have a long track record — at Melograno on Sansom Street and Fraschetta in Bryn Mawr — of creating Italian BYOBs with an authentic touch that serve their neighborhoods and beyond.
You see that in the house-baked focaccia that comes to start the meal, and the crispy but delicate oblong "Roman pinsas" made of blended rice and soy flours that Demontis says predates pizza. For $15, the Reginae is a satisfying tomato-bright take on a Margherita. Add smoky slices of dried bresaola, mushrooms, and truffled lemon oil for the earthy Animae. But there's also great value in the handmade pastas, which, at $18 or less, are fairly priced and, in many cases hearty enough to serve as entrées. The zipper-edged pappardelle tangle with pesto and scallops in one dish; with slow-braised oxtail scented with cinnamon and cocoa in another. The oversize macaroni elbows of sedanini (made by Severino) come with Demontis' peerless amatriciana sauce, a zesty tomato sauce enriched with rendered chunks of house-cured pancetta.
Those are just two of several dishes worth considering for the fish-averse, along with a very good dry-aged sirloin with mushrooms and Pecorino-pepper-dusted fries that is the restaurant's most expensive dish at $29, but, in comparison with other steaks, it's a fair deal for a quality steak.
One dish I looked forward to, but that ultimately disappointed, was the Roman porchetta, a pan-seared round of pork sliced off an herb-stuffed whole pig that was surprisingly bland and dry. Another letdown, more in tune with the restaurant's seafood theme: the sea urchin carbonara di mare.
Anyone who orders it likely already is a fan of the urchin's creamy oceanic swagger, a subtle funk that this rich carbonara promises to accentuate with a dose of fermented anchovy sauce called Colatura di Alici, related to the coveted ancient Roman condiment known as garum. (Demontis and Tran, whose family is Vietnamese, have had friendly debates over whose fish sauce has more O.G. cred.) But neither of the two urchin carbonaras I sampled had much, if any, of that brackish edge, just a silky richness glazing the irregular ropes of toothy udon-thick spaghettoni.
Aside from its dusting of pistachios, the carbonara was almost indistinguishable from the cacio e pepe. Not that L'anima's cacio e pepe should be diminished. It's one of the ultimate examples of the elusive wonder of simple Italian cooking, where just a few ingredients — pasta water, Pecorino, olive oil, and cracked black pepper — can amount to something so beautiful, and so hard to master. Demontis' creamy froth of a sauce is rich without being sticky, and so aromatic with the spicy floral punch of Tellicherry peppercorns, I'll crave it regularly. But get fancy with an egg-enriched carbonara, and you'll have to make that flourish count.
The chef is not shy about presenting bolder seafood flavors elsewhere on the menu. Even the familiar Caprese comes with garum-marinated anchovies crisscrossed atop the milky sweet buffalo mozzarella, lending a tidal twinge of originality to a summer dish that's otherwise ubiquitous. Crumbles of oil-packed tuna add salty punch to a pinsa topped with capers and red onions. Salty fillets of Portuguese sardines are pan-seared with a dusting of bread crumbs and posed over a nest of house-made egg tagliolini in saffron sauce infused with fennel, raisins and pine nuts. And squid ink darkens the soft gnocchetti in my favorite pasta dish, the coal-black dumpling puffs rising from green parsley cream beside a perfectly sautéed bounty of clams, shrimp, mussels, and fish.
The octopus, thick and tender, is paired with potatoes and Gaeta olives in a light lemon parsley oil. Garlicky snails pick up a smoky singe from the plancha before ringing a roasted tomato soup, where those nubby "lumache" play against the like-textured pop of crimini mushrooms.
L'anima's mussels are straightforward but excellent, plump and clean in a lusty tomato broth sparked with Calabrian chili oil that Demontis says is his nod to South Philly. Most of this menu, though, bears the knowing Roman touch that for me has always elevated Demontis' cooking one notch above the majority of non-Italians slinging pasta and branzino in our many Italian BYOBs.
It's noticeable in dishes that find satisfaction in the simple combinations done right, like the skewers of bite-size swordfish enriched by nubs of translucent, rendering lardo slipped between the fish, drizzled with a bright-green salsa verde. Or a thick hunk of cod quick-cured into a light baccalà, sparked with the tang of pickled onions and vinegar-boiled potatoes accented by pine nuts and sweet raisins. Or the simple pleasure of two beautiful fillets of spigola sea bass, delicately browned on the plancha then layered over rosemaried potatoes, mushrooms, and the juicy burst of grape tomatoes glossed in a simple lemon wine sauce.
I also would have loved the perfectly fried shrimp scattered with crispy artichokes and caper berries had the entire dish not been thoroughly streaked with caper mayo. It was too much, even for a mayo apologist like me who appreciates the old-school virtues of a deftly whipped creamy emulsion. But it would be a solid "no go" for a generation of millennials who apparently killed mayonnaise (based on the surprisingly emotional national debate over an August essay in Philadelphia Magazine). It's the demographic that also happens to make up a sizable slice of the new residents moving into the shiny new rowhouses stretching for blocks in every direction.
But there's a deconstructed cannoli to win them over! And there still are more than enough choices on the menu at L'anima for both the fish-phobes and mayo-haters to find a handcrafted meal that will convince them of the virtues of having their own great Italian BYOB. No rising Philly neighborhood is really complete without one. And Graduate Hospital just checked off another essential box to help it come of age.
1001 S. 17th St
Parking: Street parking only.
Handicap access: Wheelchair accessible.
Cuisine type: Italian; Seafood
Meals Served: Dinner
Style: The family behind Melograno and Fraschetta has come to Graduate Hospital with a stylishly modern Italian BYOB, a much-needed amenity for a neighborhood whose gentrification has outpaced its dining options. The same authentic Roman touch that distinguishes their other projects applies here, but with an added seafood focus, from uni-enriched carbonara with fresh pasta to garum-splashed Caprese laced with anchovies. Some inconsistent dishes and an earsplitting noise problem in the contemporary L-shaped space hold it back from greater destination potential. But with a lovely al fresco patio and handmade food that remains affordable, different, and fresh, L'anima is an asset the locals should come to embrace.
Specialties: Rustico antipasti; octopus; Caprese with anchovies; grilled snails; swordfish arrostini; mussels in tomato sauce with chile oil; pastas (amatriciana; vaccinara; gnocchetti al nero; cacio e pepe); pinsa (Reginae; Animae); spigola; baccalà alla Trastervina; corn ravioli with lobster special; deconstructed cannoli; tiramisu.
BYOB. Consider seafood-friendly Italian whites from coastal regions, like Falanghina or Fiano di Avellino (Camapania), Vermentino (Sardinia) and Verdicchio (Le Marche) or Frascati, a Roman white that's a perfect pairing for the Roman-inspired seafood menu.
Weekend noise: The ear-numbing, 90-decibels-plus din makes it hard to hear the server, let alone dinner guests, and is among l'anima's biggest flaws. An al fresco seat on the patio is the solution. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)
Hours: Dinner Tuesday through Saturday, 5-10 p.m.; Sunday, 5-9 p.m. Closed Monday.
Price: $20 to $25