o f P H I L A D E L P H I A
South Philly Review
By: Phyllis Stein-Novack
1734 E. Passyunk Ave.
Visa, MasterCard and Discover accepted
One step up into the restaurant
Excellent homestyle Italian cucina
Open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday
In 1927, Salvatore and Chiarina Marra opened an Italian-American restaurant in South Philadelphia and christened it Marra's. For 75 years, this well-known trattoria, famous for its luscious brick-oven-baked pizza, has been owned and operated by four generations of the Marra and D'Adamo families.
Marra's, a mainstay in the Passyunk shopping district, recently underwent an interior facelift. The dining rooms are brighter and there are new and very comfortable tables and chairs. There are new printed menus as well. And, for the first time in 75 years, Marra's accepts credit cards -- Discover, Visa and MasterCard.
Edward and I have been coming to the restaurant for more than 20 years. It doesn't matter what we order -- chicken, pasta or pizza -- we are always delighted with each dish. Two recent visits confirm Marra's still stands for consistency and quality. The young staff takes very good care of you. At a time when bus help is sorely lacking in restaurants throughout the city, Marra's staff serves and clears with ease.
I admit Marra's is my favorite Italian-American restaurant and the comfort foods are delicious, indeed.
Chef-proprietor Robert D'Adamo has refined certain dishes. Antipasti and salads are no longer overdressed with too much vinaigrette. Even the classic red gravy has a fresher taste. Marra's antipasto ($7) arrived filled with cool, crisp lettuce, roasted peppers, cool tuna, sliced hard-boiled egg, black olives, sweet red onions, anchovies, sharp provolone and chunks of Genoa salami. We enjoyed the antipasto with a loaf of fresh, dense bread from Sarcone's bakery.
Cozze bianco ($7) consisted of a big bowl of at least 36 glistening, squeaky-clean mussels steamed in their juices with the right touch of white wine and garlic. My sister Sandy and I shared them, and it seemed like a bottomless bowl. Our waiter brought us a bowl for the shells and we all dipped bread into the generous amount of sauce. On a visit six weeks later, I ordered mussels again and received a delicious bowl of them, which Edward helped me finish.
Another change at Marra's is the pizza selection. You can now order a personal 10-inch pie, a small at 14 inches and a large, which measures 18 inches. They are available with tomato sauce or white with mozzarella. Our hands-down favorite is white pizza with spinach, garlic and olive oil ($12.50). The pie arrives piping hot, brimming with fresh spinach, melted mozzarella and roasted garlic. I love thin-crust pizza. Marra's pies are never soggy, the crust is always crisp. Marra's makes the finest pizza in the city.
On another visit, Edward began dinner with broccoli rabe ($3.75). I found it a bit overcooked to my taste, but it was tasty, enhanced by olive oil and sautéed garlic. We were in the mood for pasta and sampled two dishes we never tried before. Fettuccine Genovese ($10) is topped with pesto. Edward received a mound of fresh ribbon pasta, perfectly cooked and tossed with pesto. Getting the right balance of ingredients is crucial in making pesto. Basil, pine nuts, garlic, olive oil and parmesan cheese are blended together, usually in a food processor.
The sauce was divine and included a touch of the hot water in which the fettuccine was cooked. Pesto must not be too thick nor too thin.
Baked manicotti ($10) is prepared with homemade egg pasta. I received two fat cylinders filled with creamy ricotta cheese, topped with rich, perfectly seasoned tomato gravy and baked in the oven. The manicotti are baked and served in a ramekin. My dinner and the ramekin were so hot, I asked our waiter if someone in the kitchen could place them on a dinner plate.
Another favorite is tortellini Alfredo with prosciutto ($11.50). The little pastas retain a bit of bite and are sauced with proper Alfredo sauce, which is neither gummy nor thin. Prosciutto adds a nice texture and a hint of salty flavor. My mother Berthe enjoys Marra's ravioli in tomato sauce ($7.50). The ricotta-filled pillows are consistently well prepared. Mom orders a meatball or sausage ($2.50 extra) from time to time, simply because Edward and I enjoy them. Texture is important when making meatballs. Chef D'Adamo and his staff keep the meat moist inside and slightly crisp outside.
Eggplant parmesan served with spaghetti ($9) is another winning dish. I have a friend who keeps kosher and is an eggplant-parm maven. She says Marra's is the best she's sampled. When I want a vegetarian dish, I order eggplant parmesan here, always with a piping-hot side of spaghetti with rich tomato gravy.
The wine list and drinks prices are very moderate. Beefeater martinis are a bargain at $6. A half carafe of Pinot Grigio is $11. Thank goodness there is one restaurant in the city that offers wine by the glass, half carafe and full carafe.
Marra's is also a fine family restaurant. The kids' menu includes gnocchi, ravioli, ziti and spaghetti, each served with a choice of meatball or sausage. Gnocchi and ravioli are $5, ziti and spaghetti are $4.25.
Marra's was filled on our most recent visits. If a staff member advises a 10-minute wait, it will not be a minute longer. Even when the restaurant is bustling, service is excellent. The staff is never harried. When Edward, Sandy, Berthe and I left Marra's around 7:30 p.m., there was a group waiting outside. One woman was reading the menu.
"I haven't been here in years," she said with a smile. "Everything looks good."
"Everything is good," I said.