184 Bridge Street
Note: I was recently notified that Chef Francesco Buto is no longer associated with Pepperoncini Soto.
Pepperoncini Sotto is the younger – and slightly more spacious – sibling of Pepperoncini in Conshohocken. And this Phoenixville restaurant holds a number of points of interest for those who are etymologically as well as culinarily inclined.
Pepperoncini, also known as Tuscan peppers, are long, thin chilies with bright red or yellow skin, which are slightly sweet and medium to hot on the Scoville scale of heat units. Sotto in Italian means “under.” And, in this sense, the establishment is surely well named, as it is tucked away deep within the bowels of the Mainstay Hotel.
And so you descend the rather steep stairway, cross the threshold… and come face to face with the host. And if you feel yourself suddenly overcome with an alarming sense of déjà vu, have no fear. Yes, this is the same gentleman, replete with conspicuous toupee, who previously held court at the nearby Columbia Bar and Grill. At the Columbia, as you may recall, he was decked out in a suit & tie and escorted you to table with the lugubrious air of a moonlighting funeral director. Here, though, he seems to have loosened up considerably and is more casually attired in a sweater or open neck dress shirt.
But your first port of call will undoubtedly be the attractive bar in search of a suitable preprandial libation. And if you’re a wine lover, Thursday evening is definitely the time to put in an appearance. Each Thursday, both at the bar and in the dining rooms, all wines served by the glass are $5.00; and there is also $10.00 off every bottle on the restaurant’s wine list. Of particular note among the white wines is the Araldica 2009 Cortese di Gavi from Italy’s Piedmont district; it is crisp & light but still sports plenty of character. Among the reds, I am partial to the 2009 Le Salette Valpolicella, which exhibits excellent body and is smooth & supple upon the palate. Both are available by the glass or bottle.
When you’re finally ready to settle in for dinner, the larger dining room is to be preferred over the smaller, which is slightly claustrophobic. However, in either location, the tables are large and well spaced. Food-wise, Executive Chef Francesco Buto sends forth a plethoric variety of hearty, well-prepared authentic Italian classics.
And the diverse menu offers a number of dining options. You may, of course, take the traditional appetizer/entrée route. However, there are several other possibilities to consider. In addition to the entrées, the restaurant also serves up several excellent salads (which may be spruced up with chicken, salmon, shrimp, or steak), pizzas, and small plates. Many of these – including a number of the appetizers – could very well serve as your main course. You could also, if you are so inclined, do a bit of mixing and matching. Just be advised – if you haven’t surmised already – portions are ample; and, unless you have the appetite of a ravening hyena, you will undoubtedly be asking your server to pack up a doggy bag.
Mr. Trzeciak’s culinary offerings are innovative blends of French and Italian traditions… but not so over-the-top as to be intimidating. They are contemporary of character without being cutesy. And the menu, which changes daily, is certain to appeal to a wide spectrum of diners. As an added plus, all meat served in the restaurant is free range and free of growth hormones, steroids, and antibiotics.
On a recent excursion, for example, my wife and I started things off by splitting an excellent arugula salad replete with red beets, luscious prosciutto chips, and shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano. We then moved on to several small plates. While my wife devoured a diminutive version (sans linguine) of the establishment’s award-winning Pescatore Sotto, seafood stew, I opted for the four-cheese eggplant parmesan and polpette – two humongous and extraordinarily delicious meatballs simmered in fresh tomato sauce. The leftover eggplant and polpette provided a most satisfying dinner for us both the following evening.
Three other small plates that could very well serve as main courses are the puff pastry di giorno (appetizer), the stuffed pepper, and the tortelloni sfatto. The former can best be described as an Italian hoagie in puff pastry; it is filled with a scrumptious array of assorted Italian meats embraced by an exquisitely flaky crust and sent forth in a pool of light tomato sauce. The pepper is filled with ground pork, creamy goat cheese risotto, and bathed in fresh marinara. The tortelloni sfatto is comprised of giant cheese stuffed pasta topped with inordinately tender braised pulled pork shoulder steeped in a piquant barbecue sauce.
The pizza, of course, is something of a must. It is of the crispy thin crust variety and topped with a mozzarella blend of cheese, fresh herb marinara, and plethora of extras. Recently sampled was a special of the evening: meatball pizza, which sported a generous apportionment of tender ground meat that was previously incarnated as the above-mentioned polpette. Pizzas are of individual size; but, once again, like most items here, are ample enough to be shared.
Entrées proper round up many of the usual suspects – chicken and veal parmesan to steak pizzaiola to potato-crusted salmon to penne with broccoli rabe & sausage to the award-winning Pescatore Sotto (clams, mussels, shrimp, scallops, calamari, and portions of fresh fish with plum tomato herb sauce and white wine butter broth over linguine) – but all are lovingly prepared and attractively presented. Appetizers or entrées, small plates or large, Pepperoncini Sotto will not disappoint..
Desserts are made off campus by Bindi, an Italian company that began in Milan and now has facilities all over the world, including the United States. These denouements are shipped frozen and precut to restaurants and other institutions, and they are, without question, quite good. The caramel apple walnut layer cake recently sampled, for instance, was absolutely first rate. On the other hand, I much prefer the cannoli, the only dessert actually made in the restaurant’s kitchen. It is of excellent quality and definitely worth the extra calories and additional expense.
If you enjoy authentic Italian cuisine served up in generous portions backed by personable service and reasonable prices, Pepperoncini Sotto should be high on your culinary agenda.
The Artful Diner
Diner is an independent, freelance food writer. His latest review and an archive of past reviews for restaurants around the country and the world can be found on this site on the REVIEWS page.
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