Cooper River Park in Pennsauken is a place where people jog, walk dogs, kayak or watch rowing regattas. “You are not necessarily there to eat dinner,” acknowledges Rob LaScala, 52, founder of the LaScala Restaurant Group. “We have to make it more of a destination.” That’s what his company is trying to do with its latest addition, LaScala’s Birra.
The building in the 346-acre park that Birra took over in early 2018 dates to 1937. The Lobster Trap occupied the space for 11 years, closing shortly before Camden County spent $3 million to upgrade the huge building. When it reopened in 2016, the new tenant, Cooper House, lasted just 18 months.
“LaScala seemed to be the ideal candidate,” says Camden County spokesman Dan Keashen, “because they’ve shown they can evolve their concept to fit into whatever environment they’re in.”
The Cherry Hill-based chain, started by Rob LaScala 22 years ago, runs five different Italian-American concepts (Birra, Fire, Pronto, Restaurant and Roman) plus catering. It has three locations in Philadelphia; the others are in Glassboro, Marlton, Ocean City and now Cooper River Park.
Birra relies on a rotating selection of about 25 craft beers to accompany the home-style Italian menu. Taking over from Cooper House, LaScala freshened the 150-seat dining room with bleached-wood floors, white tabletops and taupe walls. They added flatscreens and seats in the bar and expanded the patio beer garden.
LaScala considers the group’s free-flow kitchen concept a signature. The idea is that every dish comes to the table as soon as it’s ready, which LaScala says encourages people “to go crazy ordering a ton of stuff that they can all share, and then bring things home because we offer big portions.” In our two visits, each a table of four, entrées began arriving before we had made headway with the appetizers. The result was a train wreck.
Amid the chaos, a few things stood out: LaScala fries in Old Bay seasoning, topped with a deliciously smokey-briny blend of bacon and crabmeat, melted provolone and roasted long hot peppers. The same peppers, filled with prosciutto and melted sharp provolone in a tangy tomato sauce, made for another worthy starter. Meatballs (made from veal, pork and beef) had a light crust and rested on dollops of ricotta bathed in tomato sauce.
Another starter we eagerly consumed was the ricotta board, a jar of fine-curd ricotta and clover honey with house-made herbed piadina bread. Equally good was an octopus salad on arugula with roasted peppers, orange segments, capers and fennel, in lemon and olive oil.
In the broccoli rabe and sausage appetizer, however, both ingredients were overcooked. Brussels sprouts and pancetta pizza placed overcooked, mushy sprouts on undercooked, rubbery pancetta, though the crust itself was fine.
Corporate chef Eric Hall, who was executive chef at the Comcast Center in Philadelphia before joining the La-Scala group last March, calls the menu “artisan Italian cooking,” explaining, “It’s all fresh, and we do everything from scratch. It’s a modern take on what grandma used to make.”
Grandma might recognize the entrées, or as the menu calls them, “favorites.” Lasagna Bolognese was excellent. Comforting chicken breast San Remo came with shrimp and crabmeat over linguine in tomato-cream vodka sauce. The meat in the braised short-rib ravioli was delicious, if stringy, but the ravioli themselves were thick and crude. One non-Italian entrée we liked was seared yellowfin tuna with jerk spice on arugula, radicchio and cherry tomatoes in a white balsamic vinaigrette.
Fluffy zeppoli filled with cannoli cream came with raspberry sauce. Banana-chocolate chip bread pudding, dense but satisfying, was topped with vanilla ice cream and chocolate chips.Click here to leave a comment
Price Details:Appetizers and salads, $9-$16; entrées, $16-$24; pizza, panini, calzone, stromboli, $11-$15; desserts, $5-$10
Wine list:Full bar, about 20 draft beers