The BYO scene is one of Philadelphia's defining characteristics. There is something uniquely romantic about lingering over a well-prepared, well-proportioned meal, enjoying the hum of lively conversation in a cozy-yet-casual environment, while a carefully selected bottle of wine dwindles – the result of an attentive waiter's careful administration. La Viola, carefully tucked away at the corner of 16th and Spruce Street in Philadelphia's Center City district, is an excellent choice for a BYO establishment. Like many of its BYO counterparts, La Viola takes up little space, but nevertheless delivers a full dining experience.
Upon our arrival, my dinner party and I waited patiently for our table in the restaurant's tiny entrance area and took in the atmosphere. Unlike many BYOs, La Viola accepts reservations and making one, especially on the weekend or a theater night, is highly recommended. La Viola's atmosphere is common among Philadelphia BYOs in that it cleverly manages to fit a full-sized restaurant into one tiny room. This offers a certain warmth and excitement that can be found only when dining over the pleasant hum of others enjoying meals and relaxing over wine. Of course, it means that diners who prefer the quiet of a private table in a dimly lit corner would be well-advised to look elsewhere; however, they should do so with the knowledge of what they are missing.
La Viola's décor is calming and pleasant, but arguably La Viola's emphasis is on food and not fashion. The lighting is dimmed and walls are a pale shade with few adornments. The tables are simply, yet elegantly, set with white tablecloths, table linens, and a small floral arrangement. A large, panoramic window stretches the width of the front of the restaurant, where diners, can sip wine or coffee and watch the hustle and bustle of Philadelphia residents passing by.
After a few minutes wait, we were seated at a cozy, corner table near the front of the restaurant. Our ever-attentive and accommodating waiter handed us menus, opened our wine to breathe and delivered a basket of crusty Italian bread served with a blend of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. While we reviewed the menu, which featured an enticing variety of traditional Italian courses as well as more unique dishes, we mellowed into our wine selection. We had brought along a pinot grigio and a pinot noir, chosen to complement the acidity and spiciness of the tomato-based dishes, and the lightness of garlic and olive oil-inspired selections that highlight La Viola's menu.
After careful pondering of the menu and some strategic decision-making, our first course arrived in a flurry of scents. The highlight was most certainly the Funghi Trentino, a medley of porcini, shitake, and portabella mushrooms sautéed in garlic, basil and olive oil that seemed to literally melt in the mouth. However, we wasted no time in polishing off an order of Antipasta Mista, the chef's daily selection of traditional Italian delicacies, including robust Italian meats and cheeses, salty olives and flavorful roasted red peppers.
To round out the prima course, we also ordered a dish actually listed on the main course menu, in anticipation of our entrées to come. We devoured the plate of Penne alla Caruso, a steaming pleasantry of pencil point pasta in a vodka and tomato sauce. It was a delightful blend of tomato tartness tempered with savory cream, served hot with peas and pancetta. While we paused over our first course to enjoy the lively atmosphere and watch the activity on the street outside, our waiter refilled our water glasses and made casual conversation, consulting us about our entrée selections and responding to our requests for fresh-ground pepper and Parmesan cheese.
In well-timed fashion, so as not to interfere with the relaxed flow of an evening among family and friends, the second course arrived. Over refreshed glasses of wine and as the conversation flowed, we shared tastes of four dishes: Orecchiette alla Romana, Gnocchi al Filetto di Pomodoro, Ravioli alla Viola, and Pollo Marco Polo.
The Pollo Marco Polo offered tender chicken breast topped with the well-distributed influences of escarole, prosciutto, and mozzarella cheese in a white wine sauce that was a delight to eat. The dish was flavorful enough to be a satisfying main entrée, but light enough to finish each delicious bite. The prosciutto added a hint of spice and salt to the tender chicken, which was complemented by the creaminess of the mozzarella and enhanced by the garlic-infused white wine sauce.
The Orecchiette alla Romana, consisted of a shell-shaped pasta tossed with tender chicken, savory sausage, and mushrooms in a white wine garlic sauce with fresh plum tomatoes. It was a perfect blend of tender pasta and buttery mushrooms, combined with lightly sautéed tomatoes that had absorbed the flavor of the white wine sauce. It was so good, in fact, that it could inspire even the most courteous of dining partners to attempt second and third "tastings" from another's plate—or such was the case at our table.
The Ravioli alla Viola would satisfy a seafood craving, with homemade ravioli stuffed with creamy lobster filling. The ravioli, each large enough for several bites, was served four or five to a plate in a pink cognac sauce, which was a flavorful blend of sweet tomato with delicate cream.
Those who prefer the bolder flavors of red sauces and strong cheeses, would enjoy the Gnocchi al Filetto di Pomodoro, which combined the very distinct flavors of spinach and ricotta cheese in a simple and fresh chopped tomato sauce, served over warm, pleasantly chewy potato nuggets.
Upon completion of our meals, fueled by the success of well-chosen entrees and content to mellow over one final glass of wine, we solicited the dessert menu in search of the perfect conclusion. Inspired by our waiter's practiced recitation of the evening's dessert selection, we selected Tiramisu, which proudly represented a traditional Italian dessert experience of ladyfingers laced with espresso and cream. And, to indulge the chocolate lovers, we also ordered the Dark Side of the Moon: a slice of chocolate cake with undertones of chocolate and generously frosted with more chocolate.
Both desserts were delivered with four forks by a waiter who clearly understood that, despite satisfied palates, no one member of our dining party could resist the photographic quality of our selections. And, looks proved not to be deceiving, as we were not disappointed. We slowly enjoyed each bite of the spongy, espresso-soaked ladyfingers, the bitterness of the espresso well-tempered with the sweet cream; and savored each forkful of the rich chocolate cake, which was moist with a thick, whipped chocolate frosting that was sweet and satisfying. Both proved to conclude an entertaining and most enjoyable evening of sensory satisfaction, accented by relaxed laughter and good conversation.
With simply no room left to fill in our stomachs and having urged the last of the wine out the bottle, our party got up from the table, having enjoyed a lasting and relaxing meal. True to its Italian namesake, La Viola promises a melodious dining experience, full of elegantly distributed flavors and scents to produce a truly delightful evening and a first-class representation of Philadelphia's ever popular BYO restaurants.