Joey Baldino has quite the resume. He grew up in the Italian neighborhood of South Philly, graduated from the French Culinary Institute and has worked closely with an impressive and varied roster of chefs. At 34, he has consolidated his influences and experiences into his first solo venture, Zeppoli, a tiny storefront in Collingswood, where he’s creating some of the most authentic and delicious Italian dishes to have graced the Garden State in some time.
Before opening Zeppoli, Baldino was most recently chef de cuisine at Vetri Ristorante in Philadelphia, owned by Mark Vetri, Philly’s king of Italian cooking. Baldino also worked at Vetri’s Osteria, Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse in California, Daniel Boulud’s Daniel in New York, Jose Garces’s Amada and Georges Perrier’s Brasserie Perrier, the last two in Philadelphia.
“People see all these big names, but it’s a combination of everything—my family and where I came from, my education and my travelling,” Baldino says. “I’m not doing anything groundbreaking. These dishes have been done for hundreds of years.”
Zeppoli may not be breaking ground, but when the ground you’ve trodden includes Sicily, execution trumps innovation. Baldino visited Sicily, his father’s homeland, in 2009 and spent two idyllic months working and cooking on the farm of legendary Sicilian chef Anna Tasca Lanza.
“Sicily was the most intriguing to me,” Baldino says. “So many regions of the world have conquered the island, I could really experiment with many different cuisines.”
While wandering the streets of Catania, Baldino spotted a street vendor selling historic black-and-white photos of southern Italy. They now hang on Zeppoli’s walls, just above the dark wood wainscoting. In keeping with the Italian-trattoria style, the 35-seat restaurant’s decor is simple—old wooden tables and chairs he got from Dante & Luigi’s restaurant in South Philly, antique hanging lamps he got from Mr. Martino’s in Philadelphia, and white lace curtains that cover the bottom half of the corner bank of windows. The kitchen action can be viewed from the dining room, where the tables are tightly packed. Some patrons have complained about excessive noise, a problem Baldino says he’s planning to fix by installing foam core in the ceiling and floor. But noise is endemic to the kind of place he set out to create.
“Sicilians are loud people to begin with,” he says. “That’s my family. It’s friends and family who are here every night. It’s a fun place to be.”
Three to four servers share responsibility for all 11 tables in a round-robin system that runs smoothly and assures you will never want for anything. The menu is divided into three columns: salads, pastas (available in half portions) and entrées, and diners are encouraged to order from all three, as one does in Italy.
Among salads, we tried some house favorites, including house-made pork sausages made with fennel seed and red wine and served over sautéed broccoli rabe; and three pan-seared jumbo prawns, heads and tails on for added flavor, served on a mound of creamy Sicilian white beans. Both were excellent.
One not-to-be-missed starter not on the regular menu but available almost every night is grilled sardines: two whole small fish, marinated in lemon and parsley, blackened on the grill to a smoky finish, and served with arugula and roasted red peppers. You’d also be wise to order the antipasto (for a minimum of two people)—a groaning board of 8 to 10 individually prepared items like tuna and white beans, grilled zucchini, sweet-and-sour squash, baked ricotta, scungilli, saffron potato frittata, roasted beets, plus cold meats and cheeses.
Several pastas were outstanding. Pillowy, golf-ball-sized spinach-and-ricotta gnocchi were sumptuous in browned butter and sage sauce and packed with spinach flavor; tagliatelli al limone were ethereally light and lemony, with a choice of bottarga or pan-fried, diced prosciutto. (We opted for the latter as my daughter wasn’t brave enough to try the tuna roe.) Rigatoni alla disgraziata (rigatoni of the disgraced, a peasant dish) was an earthy mix of pasta, fried eggplant, tomatoes and ricotta salata. Fusilli in pesto trapanese (the pesto made with pistachios and almonds in place of pine nuts) had a surprising citrus twist thanks to zests of lemon and orange. The one disappointing pasta was spaghetti vongole, made with too few cockles to infuse sufficient clam flavor. On another occasion it was excellent.
The most exceptional entrée was whole roasted fish, which was orata the night we tried it. The flakey white fish came stuffed with lemons and herbs with a deglazing white wine sauce. It was served on a bed of potatoes, olives, capers and zucchini. Another winning entrée was stewed rabbit, in a tomatoey sauce, falling off the bone after two hours of braising. Seared in garlic and rosemary, the 10-ounce ribeye was flavorfully marbled. Roasted half chicken, redolent with rosemary, was tender and juicy. Fisherman stew, with large chunks of cod, swordfish, shrimp, mussels, clams and calamari, came swimming in a saffron-laden broth for a Tunisian twist, a nod to one of Sicily’s conquerors.
For dessert, don’t miss the namesake zeppoli, which are celestial doughnuts—three hot, yeasty puffs of fried dough, coated with sugar and cinnamon and served with a warm Nutella dipping sauce. The excellent house-made gelati come in a fairly stable roster of vanilla, caramel, pistachio torrone and chocolate chili plus pineapple, melon and cactus fruit sorbets. Each comes topped with a crispy pizzelle, baked by Baldino’s mother, Regina.