Take a stroll down 12th Street and eventually a wonderful vision will appear in the distance: an adorable outdoor patio enclosed by an elegant wrought iron fence. It is softly lit by string lights that look like dozens of tiny stars afloat in the trees that hang overhead. The outdoor deck, furnished with dark-colored bistro sets, is an intimate and ideal setting for enjoying a delicious meal while taking in a soft summer evening. Or if people-watching is something you like to do, it’s great for that too—sit and watch as busy Philadelphians and tourists cross 12th and surrounding streets to go in and out of The Reading Terminal, buzz by on their way to the nearby convention center, or scurry on their way to whichever sight they wish to behold—Philadelphia surely has plenty.
For whatever purpose it serves, this little patio looks quite endearing as we pass by it on our walk down 12th, and we are immediately attracted to its enchanting setting. If we hadn’t already had a reservation we may have found ourselves drifting in a dream-like trance towards the charming atmosphere and the tantalizing scent of food that lingers around it.
Once we round the corner of 12th and Filbert Streets we reach the main entrance of the outdoor patio’s home as it stands bold and sophisticated under an established awning. We enter through revolving doors and float with the familiar and appropriate tune of “That’s Amore” into a room filled with people—all of whom are dressed rather nicely for a celebration, a romantic date, or perhaps just a night out with the family, friends, or co-workers. Whatever the occasion, the atmosphere and dominant aroma of Italian spices instantly brings our hearts to Italy—and that may be the goal since we are in fact at Maggiano’s Little Italy.
Thanks to General Manager Alger Valdez, along with the gastronomical works of art created from scratch daily by head chef Thomas Hubbard, this Maggiano’s doesn’t feel like a chain restaurant at all. Instead, it is a pleasantly inviting place to enjoy traditional Italian dishes in large portions for low prices. Since the location opened on Filbert Street, it has attracted substantial crowds of weekend diners and the usual lunch-goers, and has quickly become one of Philadelphia’s favorites.
As we wait for our table, we take a seat at the well-stocked bar with ample seating and chose from a full list of bar offerings. A Sour Apple Martini—a bit fruity, slightly sweet but mostly sour—accompanies us in our initial surveillance of the restaurant. All of the furnishings are exquisite in dark mahogany and look elegant against black and white mosaic-tiled floors. The walls, painted a natural color to compliment the wood furnishings, are adorned with oak-framed, black and white pictures of Italian ancestors and beautiful landscapes of the motherland. The dozens of authentic pictures make a rather busy and interesting collage that gives the place both a cultural and personal touch. The bar is softly lit by low-hung, oval-shaped lighting fixtures that hang from the ceiling. A soundtrack featuring Frank Sinatra and musicians with a similar style, crooning out classic songs plays faintly and adds a rather charming and very classy appeal to the atmosphere. Directly across from the main entrance stands a beautiful mahogany wine closet, it looks lovely and rather tempting to our wine-thirsty palates. We are quite satisfied with the look of the place as we sip our martinis and wait for our table.
Once our table is available, a friendly host and the bouncing notes of Sinatra’s “The Way You Look Tonight” lead us into immense, exquisitely decorated dining room. The room is vast with tall ceilings and is elegantly ornamented. The mood is vivacious and welcoming with small parties and large parties alike laughing and joking, enjoying dinner in a true Italian fashion—loud, cheerful, and celebratory. “La Vita è bella” is evident in the jolly voices that ring throughout the dining room. (For those who’d prefer a more calm setting, there are smaller, quieter dining rooms separate from this large main dining room that would allow for private conversation.) Oval lighting fixtures hang throughout the room giving off a bright glow, and a huge version of the smaller ones dominates the center of the dining room. A few graceful chandeliers hang above choice tables. The room is bright and alive. Booths are lined up against the perimeter of the walls, while larger tables for larger parties dominate the middle floor.
Our booth sits higher than the tables in the middle of the dining room and is upholstered with sleek red leather, comfortable and plush, and furnished with rich mahogany wood. The red and white checkered tablecloth atop our spacious table accents the décor properly and sets the mood for a traditional Italian meal. More portraits hang in our dining area; a large family of Italian ancestors looks on from behind the oak frame as we pick up our menus and get ready to enjoy our meals. The menu, complete with wine suggestions above every menu section, provides a descriptive overview of a varied selection of pastas, meats, and seafood, all of which sound undeniably appetizing. The wine list is extensive and fit for any mood and taste, and the prices—from what we decide after our entrees arrive in massive portion sizes—are more than reasonable.
Our authentic Italian experience is furthered by the arrival of our server, Carlos, a native of Italy with a thick accent and a warm smile. He first brings us an endless amount of fresh breads and olive oil to enjoy while our meals are being prepared. We don’t fill up too much on the bread because our appetizers arrive promptly: Spinach and Artichoke al Forno and Handcrafted Pizza. The Spinach and Artichoke dip is thick and creamy, served warm and cheesy and goes wonderfully with the warm foccacia bread we are given to dip in it. The pizza is a meal on its own—a long rectangular piece of heaven, it’s topped with crumbled morsels of Italian sausage, and melted Fontina cheese over fresh oven-dried tomato, with an essence of pesto lingering in the sauce. A glass of medium-bodied Tuscan Chianti goes well with the pizza, complementing its saltier flavors.
Our entrees arrive in bountiful portions as our large table becomes covered with our dishes. The size of this feast could feed a small country. We look on, overwhelmed at both the size and appetizing appearance of this food, and wonder if maybe our eyes were bigger than our stomachs when we ordered, but then we remember: there’s always doggie bags.
The Chicken Parmesan sits on a large oval shaped plate, three thick cuts of chicken breast breaded and topped with provolone cheese. A huge helping of pasta doused in a delicious, slightly sweet marinara sauce goes wonderfully with mouthfuls of tender juicy chicken. And a glass of full bodied Sicilian Merlot tops everything off nicely, going especially well with the sauce and pasta.
The Chicken Pesto Linguine is a lighter dish, but the portion is just as huge. Thick cut linguine tossed with strips of tender chicken, all mixed in a pesto-dominated parmesan broth and topped with deliciously crunchy pine nuts is moist and delectable. It’s an earthy tasting dish that’s light and fresh, yet filling. A light, oaky glass of Monterey Chardonnay compliments this dish’s earthy flavors very well.
Though the portion sizes had been huge throughout the entire meal, we made sure to save room for dessert. From the taste of the other dishes, we anticipated a simply delicious last course—and our taste buds surely did not fail us. The Tiramisu is a creamy dish with a strong underlying essence of coffee and chocolate. The soaked lady fingers are wonderfully soft and taste delicious against the smooth, sweet mascarpone cheese. Finished off with a generous amount of chocolate powder, the flavors of this creamy dessert are so scrumptious you’ll wish the dessert portions were as big as the entrees. The menu suggests a glass of Sandeman Port to accompany this dessert. The port is strong and sweet, very bold and compliments the soft, sweet and creamy texture of the Tiramisu.
The Mini Ziccolo Bites come to us in the form of three small chocolate balls. They don’t look like much in terms of size or flavor; however, one small bite sends a powerful sense of creamy chocolate through our mouths. These are wonderful little Italian truffles and are without a doubt a true chocolate delight. We enjoy them slowly and savor their smooth chocolate essence. Enjoyed with an espresso, it’s a great way to end any meal.
The bill is paid, the table is cleared and it’s time to say arrivederci to Maggiano’s. With our rather chic-looking Maggiano’s doggie bags in hand we spin back out through the revolving doors onto the streets of Center City Philadelphia. Rest assured we will sleep sound while Tuscan flavored dreams float through our head, reminding us of the gastronomic wonders that just occurred inside. It won’t be goodbye for long, as we will most certainly be back to enjoy this little Italian wonder on Filbert Street.