518 South 3rd Street, Philadelphia PA 19147
$$ Italian Recommended

Nestled at the edge of Society Hill, Ava Restaurant is an unpretentious refuge, suitable for foodies and newbies alike. Just past the scenic red brick buildings of the neighborhood, tucked between Lombard and South on 3rd Street, is Ava’s black awning and quaint yellow-green sign. Chef and part owner Michael Campagna and his brother Anothony have developed a menu and style that draws from Northern Italy, and completely dispels any preconceived notion of “Italian American” cuisine. All pastas, and desserts at this BYOB are handmade on premises.

A Standout BYOB in Society Hill

Review by

You’ll find Ava at the edge of Society Hill, where 3rd Street meets Midway, between South and Lombard. Although the restaurant is not hard to find, a modest black awning and yellow-green sign are its only announcements. While the BYOB restaurant is only a few years old, uncommon offerings and handmade pastas and desserts are just a few of the reasons why this neighborhood restaurant is getting more and more attention.

Walking through the restaurant’s small entryway, I was immediately greeted by Ava, herself – in the form of a stunning black & white portrait, carefully positioned at the hostess stand.  Ava is the adorable four-year-old daughter of Chef and Owner Michael Campagna, and quite obviously, the restaurant’s namesake. Ava was an only child when the restaurant made its debut three and a half years ago; now she shares her daddy’s dream with her two-year-old sister, Mia and little Nicholas, who was not quite four days old when I interviewed Campagna.

Even from my very first visit, I could see that Ava is one of Philadelphia’s best kept secrets. The restaurant is intimate and inviting, holding no more than 55 seats. The small space immediately invokes the appetite by décor alone: the ceiling is painted in shades of Burgundy, and the walls seem an almost edible, Dijon-mustard hue. The floors (which Campagna, along with family and friends, installed himself) have a rustic appearance, mimicking the cobblestone streets outside. The hanging lights give off a warm, amber glow and Italian opera plays in hushed tones, making dialogue both possible and enjoyable.

The quality of the food at Ava warrants white linens at every table.  A squat vase of wild flowers is placed off to the side and out of the way, which is rather fitting because wherever I look, conversation seems to be the centerpiece of every table. The patrons of Ava are a mix of Society Hill inhabitants and other neighborhood regulars. Groups of friends, families, young and older couples, each seem to be in their own world, enraptured with the food, their favorite wines, and the general comforting feeling of the place.  The menu changes every night, so it is easy to see why Ava enjoys the company of so many regulars.

When our waiter walked by with a bowl of steaming risotto, I became instantly hungry (and thirsty!). Messaoud, our server, was kind enough to open our bottle and set it to breathe, while my guests and I perused the menu. I learned that the risotto I had seen was made with lobster and saffron and was only one of the fabulous daily risottos that Campagna contrives.  Although today’s option incorporated lobster meat, Campagna tends to keep his risottos vegetarian. With offerings such as “wild mushroom and blueberry,” Campagna’s risottos are a unique and satisfying option for the growing number of “meat-conscious” Philadelphians and visitors. 

Everything looked so delicious that it was difficult to decide what I wanted. Luckily, I had brought two guests with me, and knowing I would be able to pilfer delicious tidbits from each of their plates, I waited to see what they were going to order. As they decided, I occupied myself with the Italian olives that had been set on our table. There were two different kinds, confined to the same small, white ramekin. Larger Gieta olives were mild and light with acidity and a slight sweetness about them. Smaller Calabrese olives had been cured and then marinated with pepper, and had just enough spice to excite—but not overwhelm—the palate.  Yet, with so many intriguing offerings, I couldn’t stay distracted by the olives for long, so I redirected my efforts back to the menu, and poured over one savory combination after another until I found a few items to assuage my cravings.

Following the suggestion of our waiter, our meal began with an appetizer of Gorgonzola Stuffed Figs, dressed with a layer of crushed pine nuts. Four figs sat on the plate, each a glorious pink, with tender skins that collapsed in my mouth under the weight of the gorgonzola.  Their timid sweetness was a perfect complement to the more masculine bite of the gorgonzola cheese, and the nuts added texture and contrast to the morsel.

Our salads arrived on modest, white plates that showcased the vibrant greens. The Arugula Salad was very simply put together with baby arugula, white beans, speck, and shaved parmesan cheese. The salad was tossed in Ava’s tangy, homemade lemon vinaigrette. Speck (a lightly smoked raw ham from Northern Italy) gave the salad a fuller, rounder flavor. The salad was delicious; I have never seen a man consume greens with such delight!  

The other man at the table enjoyed the Caesar Salad: a hand tossed mixture of romaine hearts, parmesan cheese and warm polenta croutons; in the restaurant’s own Caesar dressing. Although two white anchovies rest on top of the salad, the dressing itself had no fishy flavor. My favorite aspect of the salad was the warm polenta croutons, which melted in my mouth and had the flavor of fried mozzarella.  I speared one with my fork, making sure to stack an appropriate amount of crunchy romaine underneath. The combination of the warm, cheesy crouton and the cool Caesar dressing on the lettuce gave me cause to steal a few more bites! 

Although I had already ordered an entrée, my stomach yearned for the risotto!  How could I deny myself when the aroma of lobster and saffron came wafting towards me from the next table over? The dish arrived in a golden mound of plump and velvety rice, and I could see the saffron woven throughout. While many restaurants use only lobster stock in their risotto, in this Lobster and Saffron Risotto pink and crimson claw meat was tender and abundant. Forkful after forkful, the risotto melted in my mouth like butter. I lingered over the natural sweetness and delicate texture lobster meat for as long as I could before allowing Messaoud to take the precious bowl away.

We had hardly dipped in to the wine that we brought when the entrees arrive at the table.  The Veal Scaloppini looked fit for a king, and boasted a top-round veal cut, pounded for tenderness and then seared. It was plated atop layers of fava beans, spinach, and caramelized onions, all of which were heartily flavored and substantial.  On top of the veal, there were two oven-roasted tomatoes hidden under a layer of melted fontina cheese. A drizzle of 15-year aged balsamic vinegar completed the presentation. All of the components had an earthy essence. The veal was light and tender, in comparison, and the tomatoes, cheese, and balsamic vinegar added necessary acidity and sweetness.

Although the veal was quite good, the favorite dish of the evening was the Pappardelle alla Coniglio, wide ribbons of pasta in a rabbit ragu. It was presented on a large saucer, holding thick ribbons of handmade pappardelle pasta. The braised rabbit meat was mildly gamey and quite delicious; the whole dish was brought together in a cream sauce laced with parmesan cheese.

Just before our stomachs reached their absolute limit, Messaoud came by to tempt us with dessert. From that night’s offerings we chose Chocolate-Hazelnut Gelato, Cheesecake, and a summer-fresh Raspberry Sorbet. All were superb, but no amount of decadence and flair could have upstaged Campagna’s cheesecake. The slice had an almost vintage look to it. It was the kind of cheesecake that your mother may have made: rich and dense with the flavors of cream cheese, and sour cream, baked into a hand-pressed graham cracker crust.  A heaping spoonful of sour cherry compote over top added a fruity sweetness to the dish.

Although it would be inadvisable to skip the dessert course; coffee is also a great finish to such a languorous meal. Chef Campagna has an espresso machine in house that turns out coffees, espresso, and cappuccino. Once again, he relies on local resources, using the Chestnut Hill Coffee Co. as his only provider.

When I asked Campagna what sort of environment he hoped to provide for his patrons, he responded with the hope that his guests would no longer feel like they were in Philadelphia. By this he meant not that they would be transported to the streets of Northern Italy; but rather that Ava would provide somewhat of an escape from the ‘hustle and bustle’ of the city streets.  I would say that he wasn’t too far off; for us, time rolled on with every course, and we chatted and sipped and laughed without notice of the hour, or a thought of tomorrow’s ‘to-do’ list.

All of the food at Ava is handmade. Pastas, risottos, and desserts are carefully constructed daily, allowing flavors and textures to be revealed in their true form.  Although Campagna incorporates uncommon ingredients, the objective here is comfort food; the variety and portion sizes leave everyone well satisfied. Ava is a place for relaxation and enjoyment, so be sure to bring friends, and try not to forget the wine.

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Business Info

  • Address: 518 South 3rd Street, Philadelphia PA 19147
  • Cross Street: Gaskill Street
  • Location: Society Hill | Society Hill
  • Cuisine: Italian |
  • Cost: | Inexpensive
  • Category: Fine Dining
  • Star Rating:
  • Reservations: Recommended
  • Dress Code: Business Casual
  • Meals Served: Dinner |
  • Parking: None |
  • Payment Options: None |
  • Corkage Fee: N/A
  • Staff: Michael Campagna | Executive Chef
  • Phone: (215) 922-3282
  • Features: Outdoor Seating, Personal Wines Allowed, BYOB,
  • Occasion: Romantic Dining, Dining Alone, Quiet Conversation, Special Occasion,


Ava - Ava
Ava - Executive Chef Michael Compagna

Business Hours

Reservations Available
Dinner - Main Dining Room 5 p.m. - 10 p.m.
Dinner - Main Dining Room 5 p.m. - 10 p.m.
Dinner - Main Dining Room 5 p.m. - 11 p.m.
Dinner - Main Dining Room 5 p.m. - 11 p.m.
Dinner - Main Dining Room 5 p.m. - 9 p.m.
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Customer Reviews & Ratings

4.5 out of 5 stars based on 1 votes