At a time when restaurant design has neared aesthetic ubiquity—we’re looking at you, Edison bulbs—it is refreshing when a space bucks the trend. To enter Shana’s Wild Fig in Blackwood (which opened in November) is to encounter a different take on American hospitality. Eye-popping pink accents abound, feminine down to the feather-stuffed bud vases. Velvet ropes set off tables in the front room, where an upright piano is perched beneath a beaded chandelier. A rehabbed Louis XV couch offers front-row seating for weekend jazz, and modern art hangs on the walls.
This is a maximalist space, an artistic point of view written in capital letters. Yet the lasting memory after a meal here is one of kind, generous hospitality. Dinner at Shana’s feels like you are dining with family friends.
There’s a reason for that. Shana Mastranduono’s Italian mom negated a stereotype: She was not a cook, though she fed the family admirably. This ignited a culinary curiosity. “It sparked something: What can we do in this kitchen?” Mastranduono explains. Fate intervened to answer in the form of a Greek neighbor’s kitchen. “Tula was like a grandmother to me for many years,” Mastranduono says of her first teacher. “I can remember getting off the bus in Kindergarten and being excited to go to her house and stuff grape leaves or watch her play with the pressure cooker.”
An impulse to pursue cooking professionally was sublimated by way of a young marriage and years spent raising her two children, though a catering business partly satisfied her culinary fire. As her children grew older, however, the interest endured. During college talks with her daughter Nina, Shana recalls asking what she wanted to become. Nina, who grew up cooking with her mom, turned the tables and asked the same question. Fast forward, and mother and daughter now work side-by-side in the kitchen while son Angelo runs the front of house.
“I hit 40 years old and realized life is so short,” Mastranduono reflects. “You have to take chances.”
Mastranduono’s food will ring familiar to anyone raised amid food television’s rise, where a world of cuisine filled our pre-digital TV screens. The menu is peripatetic, traveling cuisines. Look closely, and this, too, is reflected in the design of the space, from gilded hubcaps in the bathroom to a cement-mixing tub with a world map design.
At heart, however, the food reflects her own family, which spans cultures. “We have a very mixed family and I think that’s where a lot of it comes from,” she reflects. “We get together and we cook. Parties and celebrations are very flavorful and alive. We have a great time in the kitchen, and it is so reflective of who we are. There’s so much flavor. We feed people the way that we want to eat.”
Admittedly, this can render decision-making a challenge: Starters span from a resonant ricotta toast topped with warm tomato compote (a winner) to Mexican street corn nachos. Entrees like Gorgonzola steak rest alongside lentil curry, and a falafel bowl.
Ricotta toast proves a grounding start, the cheese whipped and airy, but balanced by fresh tomato tang. We paired this with a carrot salad that was not necessarily carrot-centered, but accented with green lentils and bright, tahini-laced balsamic vinaigrette.
From here, my partner and I went in geographically disparate directions. For him: a trio of pork a la diabla tacos. Topped with lime crèma and tart pickled onions, they were bright and earthy. My grilled chicken parmesan blended umami and acidity, and came dressed up with burrata, garlicky spinach and a sprinkling of crystallized basil. Fancy, but without pretense.
Dessert, at this point, was out of the question.
Dinner at Shana’s is best summarized by a quote posted near the cook space: “The kitchen is the heart of the home.” For me, a child of Food Network parents who met in the restaurant business, it felt deeply comforting and familiar. When I was growing up, people at my parents’ frequent dinner parties told my folks that they should open a restaurant. My dad would run the kitchen. My mom would bring her smile to the front of house. Watching Mastranduono and her children at Shana’s Wild Fig, I imagine that it might have felt a little like this.
Shana’s Wild Fig; 57 South Black Horse Pike, Blackwood; 856-302-6286; Open Wednesday-Saturday, 5-9pm; and Sunday, 11am-4pm.Click here to leave a comment